Navy takes aggressive stance on cyber protection

Vice Adm. H. Denby Starling spoke recently with Defense Systems about the role a cyber force plays in protecting U.S. information networks

Vice Adm. H. Denby Starling assumed command of the Naval Network Warfare Command (Netwarcom) in June 2007. He is responsible for operating, maintaining and defending Navy information networks, and conducting information operations and space operations.

Starling oversees a global force of more than 14,000 and is the functional component commander to the Strategic Command for space, information operations and network operations. Starling spoke recently with Defense Systems contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about the role a cyber force plays in protecting U.S. information networks against attack.

DS: You have said that Netwarcom is transitioning from a network and communications provider to a cyber force. What does a cyber force do that a network and communications force can't do?

Starling: It's a great question because I think it's not just an issue faced by the Navy, but one that's faced across [the Defense Department] today. Netwarcom has only been around since 2002, but the organizations that came together to make up Netwarcom are actually pretty old. The major ones were the Naval Telecommunications Command, which was very much focused at that time on networks and communication, and the Naval Security Group, which for years was largely a cryptographic force dealing in signals intelligence.

I have a very interesting group of people who have come together to form this one command, and my challenge to these folks as we mature is to not think of yourself as a former communicator or a former network guy. That's backward-looking; I want people looking forward.

If you read the definition of "cyber" that's been put out by the Joint Staff, it revolves very heavily around the use of computer networks for all of those things today that we depend on — not just communications but command and control that give you the ability to decide inside the enemy's decision cycle and the ability to defend, exploit and attack on those networks.

DS: I would imagine it's more interesting for your people to be attacking and defending through cyberspace rather than just managing the communications network.

Starling: Again, it's a great point because the piece we try to emphasize not just inside Netwarcom but inside the Navy is that everyone who sits down in front of a computer is a cyber warrior. It's like the force protection aspect of what we do. Every time you get on your computer and you connect yourself to the Global Information Grid or to the Internet, there are things you have to know just like if you're a soldier walking onto the battlefield. Every time you sit down at your computer, you enter the battlespace portion of cyberspace, and you're in there with everybody else who's using it, which includes U.S. and foreign criminals, hackers and nation states.

DS: And I don't imagine that changes when sailors log on to ESPN for the daily highlights.

Starling: We have a culture in the Navy — and one that I'm strongly supportive of, to tell you the truth — that encourages our sailors not just at Netwarcom but everywhere to be more computer savvy. In the early days when computers showed up on desks, we told people that it was OK to use their government computer to do other things when they weren't doing their business. That is a policy we have not stepped around from today. I can use my computer to do my banking, and, in fact, we depend upon that for our sailors who are deployed and want to access their bank accounts or their pay records. In many cases, we expect them to do distance learning, and we expect them to do it from any place in the world.

To do those connections, we use the public infrastructure and to some extent, the public Internet. That presents unique security challenges. Sailors want to watch CNN; they want to know what's going on in the world. We recognize that. But if you're going to let folks be out there surfing the Web, we want them to take certain precautions so that the training piece is always foremost in our minds. That's not so much a challenge inside my own organization because we live it, sleep it, breathe it everyday, but it's a big Navy challenge.

DS: The Netwarcom strategic plan refers to command, control, communications, computers, combat systems and intelligence (C5I). Tell me about the fifth C.

Starling: The fifth C is combat systems, of which there are a couple aspects. I wear another hat as the deputy chief of staff for communication systems for Adm. [Jonathan] Greenert at U.S. Fleet Forces Command. In that capacity, we do a number of things in shipboard combat systems and communications modernization. For example, we and Commander Pacific Fleet run the naval C5I modernization conference every quarter, where we look at all of the combat systems and communications and network installs that are going into our ships to make sure those are properly coordinated and prioritized.

In addition, Netwarcom is responsible for all the systems integration testing on board ships. We have a team that specifically goes out and does that for deploying strike groups to make sure that all of their communications in combat systems are interoperable.

We're not a platform-oriented type command, which is somewhat normal for the Navy. We are a capabilities-oriented group, particularly for combat systems. In [World War II], you needed radios to talk from ship-to-ship and maybe to a gunfire spotter, but you didn't need a radio to shoot the gun. So combat systems and your ability to communicate, while dependent on each other, weren't necessarily technologically connected. Today every combat system runs on a network, so more and more of these systems, which had real barriers between them [before], are today becoming more and more indistinguishable.

As we mature in this world, the same challenges that face communications networks also face combat systems networks. We need to make sure that we do that holistically, and that's part of our charter here at Netwarcom.

DS: In the past year, Netwarcom has established the Readiness and Training Directorate to enable its activities, created the Fleet Intelligence Office as your initial step in assuming duties as the type commander for fleet intelligence, and established the Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN) Fleet Integration and Transition Team to guide fleet transition activities as you approach the October 2010 expiration of the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) contract. Can you bring me up to date on those activities and lessons learned so far?

Starling: We're a type commander here at Netwarcom, and every type commander's primary job is manning, training, equipping and readiness. It was decided that when Netwarcom was stood up that we would have a similar type of function initially for C4I and C5I. We have taken this cross-platform view because commanders tend to look at their own platforms and nobody was specifically chartered to look at the interoperability across platform types — between the aviation side and the surface side, for example.

So when we stood up our Readiness and Training Directorate, we did it specifically to look across the strike groups, across the platforms in a way that the individual platform type commanders might not do. As that process matured, there was a recognition and a desire that somebody do the same thing for intelligence — manning, equipping, systems and training inside the fleet. About a year ago, Netwarcom was directed to take on that responsibility so that we could advise U.S. Fleet Forces Command of the intelligence requirements that are specific and unique to our operations internal in the fleet.

I would say that we're the least mature of the type commanders right now, though we do have an intell flag officer and are moving to a staff here of about 20 or 25 people to do that piece. But again the idea is to have an organization that looks across the entire fleet from a wholeness perspective to advise fleet commanders so that they can then push the fleet requirements up to the [Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OpNav)] staff. We're not intended to be in competition, for example, with the OpNav intelligence staff, but rather should be complementary.

DS: Have you had any resistance from other type commanders who have had to give up some responsibility to Netwarcom?

Starling: There's a little bit anytime you set up something new, particularly as you get your processes in place to sort out who it is you really want doing what. But all in all, I would say that the platform type commanders are recognizing that the cross-platform look that we get is very valuable.

The other guys who really like it are the fleet commanders because we now present them with a more integrated product. Before, they would get an air input, a sub input, a surface input, [and] they might get an input from the intell side of the house, from the Striking Fleet, the Training Fleet commanders or the training strike group guy. Now we're trying to put together for them in one package a very holistic look across all of their networks and IP-based decision-making systems from a manning, training and equipping status so we can say, "Yep, these guys are ready as a group to move into the integrated training phase," which the fleet commanders run.

DS: How is the transition from NMCI to NGEN progressing?

Starling: The parallel I'll draw for you is that in my previous job, I was the East Coast aviation type commander. When we were going to integrate a new airplane into the fleet — the F/A-18G, for example, which was going to replace the EA-6B Prowler — we stood up a team that specifically focused on transitioning this aircraft into the fleet from an operational perspective. They looked at where the airplane would be based, what the training requirement was going to be, how to introduce the new airplane while we phased out the old one. You can't do it all in one day; in fact, it takes years.

We're using a similar model for our transition out of the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet environment that we have been in with EDS for a number of years. As we move into NGEN beginning in October of 2010, the team that is down here is the organization that will work with the NGEN program office and also OpNav [intelligence staff] to manage the operational side of NGEN implementation and to provide them the fleet and operator view because once this new program goes in place — just like the rest of the Navy networks — we here at Netwarcom will be responsible for the day-to-day operations and defense of those networks.

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