Monday, November 16, 2009

Shane Harris - The Cyberwar Plan

Shane Harris has an interesting article in the National Journal. The main punchline seems to be that in 2007 US performed a cyber operation against insurgents in Iraq (and is planning to fight in cyberspace in the future, as well). Specifically:
"At the request of his national intelligence director, Bush ordered an NSA cyberattack on the cellular phones and computers that insurgents in Iraq were using to plan roadside bombings. The devices allowed the fighters to coordinate their strikes and, later, post videos of the attacks on the Internet to recruit followers. According to a former senior administration official who was present at an Oval Office meeting when the president authorized the attack, the operation helped U.S. forces to commandeer the Iraqi fighters'communications system. With this capability, the Americans could deceive their adversaries with false information, including messages to lead unwitting insurgents into the fire of waiting U.S. soldiers."

As is the tradition with revelations like this, in the end, there are no easily verifiable facts and the story itself is deniable, if necessary. On the other hand, it does say out loud what many others have omitted to so far and brings a clearly understandable example of the potential use of cyber power.

The article gives a very nice overview of many of the problems in cyber, such as finding and retaining personnel for the cyber force, attributing attacks to a state, potential escalation of the conflict to include third parties, collateral damage etc. One of the problems is the interdependency between civilian and military infrastructure, well illustrated by the quote from an USAF official: "... Iraq didn't do a good job of partitioning between the military and civilian networks." We have seen that human shield tactics work relatively well against western military. Consider then that the mixed infrastructure is like an ultimate human (civilian) shield, which could be used as a deterrent against military cyber attacks.

In a way, this article illustrates the media bias in security studies. We (western media) have long heard stories and laments of Chinese, Russian, Iranian and North Korean evildoing in cyberspace - spying on government leaders, attacking opposition web servers at home and abroad, etc. It is rare to hear someone state the obvious truth that western countries are, in fact, often doing the very same thing. With that out of the way, we can get down to business of analyzing conflicts in cyberspace.

The article briefly covers the Estonia 2007 and Georgia 2008 cyber attacks. Unfortunately, he makes the wide-spread comment of "crippling effects" in the Estonian case, which I have tried to correct and explain here. However, he only uses these cases as examples to illustrate the problems of attribution.

He proceeds by illustrating one of the key reasons why cyber operations have failed to make it into mainstream military use. A briefing on the 1999 Kosovo campaign concluded that:
"... the cyber-operation "could have halved the length of the [air] campaign." Although "all the tools were in place ... only a few were used." The briefing concluded that the cyber-cell had "great people," but they were from the "wrong communities" and "too junior" to have much effect on the overall campaign. The cyber-soldiers were young outsiders, fighting a new kind of warfare that, even the briefing acknowledged, was "not yet understood.""
It is true - cyber warfare is not yet understood. Not even by the experts who are trained to fight it. There are very few examples (often anecdotal) of actual use of cyber operations to achieve military success, and even those are usually restricted to a very narrow part of the grand plan. Therefore, it is too early to say if applying the doctrine in large scale conventional military operations will bring cyber to the dominant position, or supportive, or just annoying. It will probably take a conventional, serious (life-or-death for the state), war between two technologically advanced states to really bring out the benefits and drawbacks of cyber war.

The rest of the article is also a good read, so I highly recommend it. I don't agree with parts of it, such as the MAD doctrine as a useful analogy (I've commented on it here), but it does provide a good introduction to the military cyber issues, especially for those who are new to the topic.

No comments:

Post a Comment