The Pentagon is planning to create a new military command to focus on cyberspace and protect its computer networks from cyber attacks, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The move comes as the White House is poised to release a broader study on the nation's cyber security. Officials in recent months have increasingly warned that the nation's networks are at risk and repeatedly are being probed by foreign governments, criminals or other groups.
The Pentagon has been reviewing for at least a year just how it needs to reorganize military efforts on cyber issues, one official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. Another official said that under the new plan, being finalized now, a sub-command could be set up under the U.S. Strategic Command.
Located at Offutt Air Force Base just south of Omaha, Neb., the command oversees space issues and is responsible for protecting and monitoring the military's information grid, as well as coordinating any offensive cyber warfare on behalf of the country.
Defense Department networks are probed repeatedly every day and the number of intrusion attempts have more than doubled recently, officials have said. Military leaders said earlier this month that the Pentagon spent more than $100 million in the last six months responding to and repairing damage from cyber attacks and other computer network problems.
In the Pentagon's budget request submitted last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon will increase the number of cyberexperts it can train each year from 80 to 250 by 2011.
The broader Obama administration study also about to be released looked at how the government can better manage and use technology to protect everything from the nation's electrical grid and stock markets to tax data, airline flight systems and nuclear launch codes.
According to the official, the program would not be on the level of a separate combatant command. Instead, the likely recommendation would be to create a "sub-unified command" that would focus entirely on combating cyber warfare but exist under the current Strategic Command.
A senior Pentagon official revealed that cyber attacks against military computer networks have "increased significantly ... more than doubled" in the past six months. The attacks were said to include "thousands of probes a day" against Web sites associated with the Defense Department.
One such cyber attack occurred two years ago against the military's most expensive weapons system, Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 Lightning II program — also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Pentagon officials told The Associated Press that the hackers were able to steal data about some of the plane's systems through computer networks, although they insisted that the information was not classified and that the loss of the information did not present any potential threat to the aircraft.
One defense official said it is not clear who did it, or whether it was an attempt at corporate thievery or a hacker trying to harm the program. The Pentagon is expected to pay about $300 billion to buy nearly 2,500 of the F-35 jets for the Air Force, Navy and Marines.
Although the number of cyber attacks and simple "probes" has increased, none of the attacks has resulted in the loss of highly classified information, the officials said. The information is contained only in the U.S. military's internal computer networks, which are not accessible over the Internet and considered largely impenetrable by outside hackers.
In the wake of disclosures about the cyber attack, Lockheed Martin issued a carefully worded statement saying that "to our knowledge there has never been any classified information breach." The company added that its systems are continually attacked, and that measures have been put in place to detect and stop the hacking.
The statement did not specifically deny a breach into unclassified information or less sensitive areas of the F-35 program.
One official said that outside cyber scans of the fighter program are not new, and that they could well involve subcontractors and suppliers around the world. Those scans may not involve critical, classified systems, the officials said.
Lockheed is the lead contractor for the F-35. A number of other companies, including Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems, make parts and systems for the plane.
According to U.S. counterintelligence officials, this is not the first military jet program that has suffered cyber attacks.
During a speech in Texas earlier this month, Joel Brenner, head of the U.S. Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, said officials have seen counterfeit computer chips "make their way into U.S. military fighter aircraft."
Brenner added: "You don't sneak counterfeit chips into another nation's aircraft to steal data. When it's done intentionally, it's done to degrade systems, or to have the ability to do so at a time of one's choosing."
His comments were not related to the F-35, according to administration officials. But Brenner has also warned that careless, laid-off or disaffected employees can often be the root of corporate cyber leaks. Foreign governments or groups, he said, plan computer attacks that take advantage of sloppy workers or bad network management practices.
In a series of recent speeches, Brenner has repeatedly raised the alarm that foreign governments and other groups are accessing government systems and installing malicious software.
"The Chinese are relentless and don't seem to care about getting caught. And we have seen Chinese network operations inside certain of our electricity grids. Do I worry about those grids, and about air traffic control systems, water supply systems, and so on? You bet I do," Brenner told an audience at the University of Texas at Austin.
While some reports indicated the source of the F-35 hack was traced back to China, Pentagon officials told NBC News that there was no proof of that, and that the U.S. may not be able to prove the Chinese government was behind the cyber attack.
This report includes information from NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and The Associated Press.