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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Cyber security and warfare are on par with a credible nuclear deterrent in the defense priorities of the United States, the U.S. Navy's top admiral said on Monday, after the Pentagon accused China of trying to hack into its computer networks.
Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told Reuters the defense department's cyber program had continued unabated despite the political gridlock about the U.S. budget deficit and enforced spending cuts in other areas.
"The level of investment that we put into cyber in the department is as protected or as focused as it would be in strategic nuclear," Greenert said in an interview in Singapore just before the start of the three-day Reuters Cybersecurity Summit in Washington (link.reuters.com/dam97t).
"It's right up there, in the one-two area, above all other programs."
For the U.S. Navy, cyber security is critical because its ability to coordinate ships, planes and personnel depends heavily on computer networks and satellites.
"We've got to understand how to defend them, how to exploit them ourselves and how to, as necessary, be able to do offensive effects," said Greenert, who will attend this week's IMDEX Asia maritime defense show in Singapore.
"Many people who look at the future of warfare say it's bound to start in cyber. The first thing you'd want to do is shut down their sensors, interrupt their power grid, confuse them ... and presumably guard against that kind of thing and recognize if it's starting."
The U.S. Navy has enjoyed advantages in traditional sea, undersea and air warfare but times have changed, he said.
"In the cyber domain, a lot of people - civilian hackers, anybody - can get into this," Greenert said.
The Pentagon, in its annual report to Congress on China, cited "state-sponsored industrial and technical espionage" to benefit Chinese defense industries, military planners and government leaders.
Last week's report, for the first time accusing the Chinese of trying to break into U.S. defense computer networks, said the cyber snooping was a "serious concern" that pointed to a greater threat because the "skills required for these intrusions are similar to those necessary to conduct computer network attacks".
Beijing dismissed the report as groundless. The People's Daily, regarded as a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, said later that "the United States is the real 'hacking empire' and has an extensive espionage network".
Greenert, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military felt the need to go public about China due to a "threshold of frustration".
Beyond China, he said Iran has a "deliberate and emerging" cyber capability, Russia is "very advanced" and North Korea is "more in the development stage".
The security of satellites is paramount as they underpin nearly all U.S. military functions with communications, target and weather data, along with warning of missile launches.
Washington is keeping a close eye on Chinese activities in space after an intelligence report last year raised concerns about China's growing ability to disrupt U.S. military and intelligence satellites.
"You want to develop satellites that have a cryptological effect or impact so that they are hardened against jamming," Greenert said.
As a contingency in case satellites are jammed, contaminated with a computer virus or hit by a missile or a directed-energy weapon, he said the Navy was going "back to the future" by looking at high-frequency relays used during the Cold War.
"That part of the electromagnetic spectrum is still out there. It's not as well traveled as it used to be so it's actually cleaner," he said. "We're actively working on that."
The energy blasted from ships by radar and satellite systems is "like a beacon", Greenert said, making reduction of the electronic "signature" a key part of the Navy's cyber strategy.
Using radar in targeted patterns, changing frequencies and using lower energy levels and shorter pulses are all part of the plan to stay stealthy - along with shutting down the systems quickly when in "mission control" mode.
"It's like quitting smoking. You've got to learn to get off this addiction to constant information to and from," Greenert said. "Going off the grid can be a good thing."
Editing by Ron Popeski