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updated 2/24/2009 2:37:32 PM ET 2009-02-24T19:37:32

Just as foot soldiers need to practice their skills before heading into combat, America's cyber warriors need space in the virtual world to hone their skills as well. That place will be the National Cyber Range, a virtual proving ground to simulate battles and develop virtual weapons to fight our nation's enemies.

As part of that effort, Johns' Hopkins University and defense contractor Northrop-Grumman were both recently awarded multi-million-dollar contracts to help build the National Cyber Range with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"I think this is a fantastic idea," said Ed Adams of Security Innovation, a company which until last year worked with the Department of Defense on cyber security issues.

"DARPA is in the business of security. They have built what they think are good cyber defenses, and [the NCR] will let them put it into production."

The NCR is not the military's first sortie into the world of cyber security. The NCR is merely a formalization of the cyber war games the military has been conducting during the past couple of decades.

Like a traditional battle with tanks, bullets and boots, one team is designed to defend a position, while another tries to take it.

"Think of it like the board game Risk," said Adams. "Instead of having little squares sitting on top of Brazil, you have virtual avatars sitting on a piece of data that you are assigned to protect."

That information could include anything, from the location of troops on the ground to a piece of computer code. The avatars, actually soldiers sitting in front of computer terminals and armed with a keyboard instead of a carbine, have a variety of weapons and tactics to employ in order to protect and defend.

"Low level processor unit attacks are like attacking an individual foot soldier," said Adams. "A denial of service attack would be more like a mortar shelling or blitzkreig."

The NCR will let soldiers develop and test a range of weapons, and develop defenses against them.

Besides developing and testing new weapons and defenses in real time, the NCR will also allow cyber warriors to manipulate time, said Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for DARPA.

"Sometimes you need to see how a computer program works faster than in real time," said Walker. "Other times you want to slow down time because computers often take actions so quickly you can't see what happened in real time."

Time is ultimately the problem, says Adams, and in cyber warfare the attacker has the benefit of time. A defender has to defend against all weak points in a system, while an attacker has virtually unlimited time and resources to plan a coordinated attack.

The NCR should help shore up America's computer vulnerabilities while giving (virtually) armed forces the means to strike back.

"The weapons needed for cyber defense are much more sophisticated than in the real world," said Adams. "I was trained for years as a mechanical engineer, so I don't like to say it, but computer defense is an order of magnitude more difficult in cyber space than in the real world."

Contractors on the project cannot currently comment on the NCR.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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