Although rarely acknowledged, we are already engaged in offensive cyberwar. As it turns out, drones and cyberspace, the fifth domain of warfare is emerging as a new dimension in conflicts of the future.
Today, with over two billion people online, the United States and Israel like the rest of the world is increasingly reliant on the security and resilience of our inter-connected networks and systems operating in cyberspace.
In the last twenty years, however, we never take the cyber threats extremely seriously. The stark reality comes upon learning that our potential adversaries are covertly developing the greatest cyber offensive capabilities from Russia, China to Iran. Indeed, it is a great challenge but not insurmountable.
The hidden dangers and risks have grown exponentially as our critical infrastructures are being exploited by cyber criminals, terrorists, nation states and even pranksters.
Consequently, the increasing number of cyber-attacks into our commercial and military networks to probe for potential weaknesses and vulnerabilities is one of our nation’s most pressing security problems.
But while the US, Israel, Britain and other allies have so far collaborated on cyber-security they still lack a coordinated cohesive response to transnational threats such as cyber-terrorism and narcotics trafficking.
New era in cyber warfare
In a markedly significant escalation in cyber warfare, US intelligence officials have blamed Iran for its breach into American financial institutions and for a massive cyber-attack in August on systems at Saudi Arabian state oil company, Aramco and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas. The assault, known as Shamoon, created the image of a US flag in flames on 30,000 infected computers.
Reports surfaced earlier this year that Iran had tried to attack Israel’s Bank Hapoalim, though it was thwarted. In January, Saudi hackers published credit card details of thousands of Israelis and brought down the websites of El Al and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
In response, Israel is stepping up its cyber-defense and developing a digital “Iron Dome” system to combat the threats.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel suffers increased cyber-attacks and efforts to penetrate its computer systems on a daily basis.
Israel Radio quoted him saying, “Just as the Iron Dome missile defense system operates to intercept missiles and the security fence prevents the entry of infiltrators and terrorists, we will also have a similar defense mechanism against cyber-attacks.”
The Iron Dome developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is an integrated mobile air defense system that detects, tracks and intercepts incoming short range rocket and artillery shells.
However, the October 6 breach of Israeli airspace by an unmanned Iranian drone with stealth attributes launched from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, exposed serious gaps in its air defenses.
Barring any psyOps reason, it is quite possible that the Patriot missile interceptor batteries in Haifa and other parts of its northern region would hardly at all prevent droves of enemy drones over its airspace in the future. As many experts have pointed out, Patriots are not designed for intercepting aircraft, only missiles.
That’s why Netanyahu’s plan for an Iron Dome-style digital defense to guard online systems “makes sense” amid a threat of attack from Iran. It therefore validates Israel’s digital shield in the midst of a new cyber Cold War.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also revealed plans to deal with a massive cyber-attack including launching a possible cyber-offensive in what some analysts say is a message to Iran.
There is no doubt that the fanatical Islamic republic’s clerical regime is on the verge of a monumental economic collapse due to tightened sanctions. That’s why they are explicitly trying to target American interests to provoke Israel to start a new war.
The lack or absence of any cyber or military response from either US or Israel, might push Iran further to the brink of destructive cyber warfare.
Rhetoric aside, it would be a grave mistake for Iran to pursue military cyber warfare without facing disastrous consequences.
Ongoing cyber threats
In the US Department of Defense (DOD), there are 7 million machines to protect linked in 15,000 networks with 21 satellite gateways and 20,000 commercial circuits composed of countless devices and components on 4,000 military installations around the world.
General Keith Alexander, head of the secretive National Security Agency (NSA) and the military’s US Cyber Command said the DOD information systems are probed by unauthorized users 250,000 times an hour, over 6 million times a day from criminals, terrorist organizations, and more recently from 100 foreign intelligence organizations.
Among other things, the general’s mandate is to conduct “full-spectrum” operations-to defend American military networks and attack other countries’ systems. Precisely how, and by what rules, is highly classified top secret.
General C. Robert Kehler, Commander of US Strategic Command noted that much of the hostile activity on DOD networks involves attempts to steal industrial or military secrets.
In addition, the computer systems of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency in charge of America’s nuclear weapons stockpile experiences up to 10-million cyber attacks daily.
James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence told the congressional panel that the intelligence leadership agree the US is in a type of cyber-Cold War, losing some $300 billion annually to cyber-based corporate espionage, and sustaining daily intrusions against public systems controlling everything from major defense weapons systems and public air traffic to electricity and banking.
US intelligence officials already have found what they say is evidence of Chinese and Russian cyber spies snooping in computer systems that run the electric grid, “possibly in preparation for a conflict with the U.S. The governments of China and Russia have denied any involvement.”
Highly secretive world of offensive cyber warfare
For years, the Pentagon has been adamant about the need to defend itself against cyber attack, but its ability and desire to attack enemies with cyber weapons has been cloaked in mystery.
Next week, however, the Pentagon’s Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will launch Plan X – an effort to improve the offensive cyber warfare capabilities “needed to dominate the cyber battlespace,”
For one, it shows that the Pentagon is now essentially treating its preparations for cyber war the same way it treats its preparations for any potential conventional war.
Plan X indicates that such capabilities – which experts say could range from taking out electrical grids to scrambling computer networks in top-secret facilities to causing the pacemaker implanted in an enemy official to go haywire – will be an explicit part of the US military playbook.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted at the need for increased offensive capabilities, warning that America “won’t succeed in preventing a cyber attack through improved defenses alone.”
New US cyber strategy
The new US military strategy makes explicit that a cyber attack is a threat to national security and casus belli for a traditional act of war, according to the US Joint Forces Command.
Far from militarizing cyberspace, former deputy defense secretary William J. Lynn III said that US cyber strategy will make it more difficult for military actors to use cyberspace for hostile purposes. This commitment to peace through preventive defense is at the heart of the Pentagon’s cyber strategy.
To counter the growing cyber threats, the Pentagon has developed a list of cyber-weapons and -tools, including logic bombs, viruses that can sabotage an adversary’s critical networks, to streamline how the United States engages in computer warfare.
Finally, it is not surprising that the US can defend itself from all the emerging threats from air, sea, land, space and cyberspace. Interestingly, the US reserves the right, under the law of armed conflict, to respond to serious cyber-attacks with an appropriate, proportional, and justified military response.