The time has come to take a hard look at the structure of the Canadian military and consider the idea of a new fourth command – cyber.

Its mandate would be to protect Canada and Canadians in cyberspace – a domain we have come to rely on every day – to counter constant cyber warfare now being waged.

Cyberspace may sound simple – the electronic medium of computer networks in which online communication takes place – but countries such as Canada are increasingly dependent on this complex communications network. Our personal banking, healthcare and educational records are all stored and transmitted electronically; energy transmission and water systems are controlled via electronic communication (SCADA systems); traffic lights, flight traffic control and military command and control structures – our jobs and much of our daily lives – are all reliant on this medium.

Whether we like it or not, electronic communication has become one of the core dependencies in our society.

Such complete dependence makes it imperative that we focus on ensuring Canada is prepared and equipped to defend itself in this new domain. Recent wars in Georgia and the Middle East have seen the first forays of cyber warfare. Attacking critical infrastructure – power transmission and communication – in preparation for a military offensive is becoming a routine part of any successful battle plan.

To tackle the problem, governments must first begin by updating military policies to define “What is an act of cyber war?” and “How should they respond?” Since 85 percent of Canada’s critical infrastructure is owned by the private sector, responsibility for cyber defence is a grey area. While cyber has been identified as one the military’s six operational domains – land, air, sea, space, cyber and cognitive – much more needs to be done.

Other nations are now recognizing the importance of securing cyberspace. In the United States, President Obama has stated that he will “make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century.”

History lessons
Why do we need another arm of the Armed Forces dedicated solely to this?

For centuries, nations have in the main focused their military strategy around two core commands: Army and/or Navy. The last arm of the Canadian military – the Air Force – was created in the early 1920s with the realization that control of the skies would bring tremendous advantage: It would allow quick attack over great distances and easier monitoring of an enemy’s movements from a perspective never seen before. Today, command of the skies has become as important as dominance on land and on the seas. Yet, at the time of the introduction of the Air Force, it was met with great scepticism.

Those same advantages exist today for those who can detect, deter, deceive, disrupt, defend, deny and defeat others in cyberspace. Canada has a historical base as a global leader in cyber security technology, education and military strength. With a well-educated and computer-literate population – 70 percent of Canadians have direct access to the Internet – a great opportunity awaits.

And within the military, the well-established and highly regarded Communications Security Establishment and the newly established Canadian Forces School of Communications and Electronics provide an excellent basis for growth. But establishing and investing appropriately are two very separate and distinct things.

Through our efforts in Afghanistan, Canada has once again gained considerable recognition from NATO allies. Our military support and focus should be on those troops engaged in theatre. However, in 2011, as we wind down our deployment, and our physical contribution to NATO is greatly reduced, we will be able to ramp up our expertise at home in cyber warfare/cyber defence.

According to Suleyman Anil, the official responsible for protecting NATO against computer attacks, “cyber defence is now mentioned at the highest level along with missile defence and energy security. We have seen more of these attacks and we don’t think this problem will disappear soon. Cyber war can become a very effective global problem because it is low-risk, low-cost, highly effective and easily globally deployable. It is almost an ideal weapon that nobody can ignore.”

There is a huge need in NATO for a member to take on this leadership role and to back it up with operational capability.

Should Canada act now, and create a separate, standalone arm of the military dedicated to all things cyber – information warfare, information security, critical infrastructure protection, signals intelligence – we would be sending a strong message to Canadians, our allies and the global community, that Canada will be ready and is prepared to lead in this area.

The cyber warfare powers of the future will not be judged on how many computer warriors they have, but rather on how intelligent the soldier is behind the keyboard and how advanced is the technology being utilized.

By investing now, and initiating the organizational changes required to create a new and critical arm of the military, we could be ready in 2011.

Ian Wilms is chairman of the Global Centre for Securing Cyberspace, an NGO based in Calgary, dedicated to assisting law enforcement in the fight against cyber crime. He previously worked for IBM and served for five years as a Calgary Police Commissioner (