"Cywars" and Psywars -- U.S. Playing Offense? Pentagon Experiments Cautiously     Print Email

For at least a decade, “cyberspace” – with its potential for exposing digital networks to eavesdropping and crippling attack – has been highlighted by strategists as a new “fifth dimension” of warfare. The most vulnerable global power in this regard is the United States and its European allies, analysts say, because these nations rely so heavy on electronic networks for their military operations as well as their civilian infrastructure from communications and road traffic to banking and hospitals. All of these can potentially be taken down by massive attacks by hackers, especially those with backing from a government.

Looking for a defense and deterrent against such threats, the U.S. has started using limited cyber war tactics of its own, according to Shane Harris in his November 14, 2009 National Journal cover-story, “The Rise of Cyberwar” (which is not available on line). During the Iraq war, the magazine reports, President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency, which handles secret communications matters, to launch a cyberattack on Iraqi insurgents. The guerillas were using cell phones and computers to coordinate their roadside bomb attacks and also to post videos of the attacks on the Internet to recruit followers. The National Journal quoted to a former senior administration official as saying that this cywar operation enabled U.S. forces to commandeer the Iraqi fighters’ communications system and then play back that advantage by sending deceptive messages to the Iraqis who thought they were coming from their comrades. In some cases, these disguised U.S. messages led unwitting insurgents into U.S. ambushes.

So far, such U.S. operations are small in scale, but they point to growing U.S. efforts to contend with major potential adversaries in this sphere such as China and Russia: both suspected of developing “cyberforces” enabling them to attack other countries’ electronic infrastructures while remaining officially at arm’s length from the conflict. As reported in European Affairs, it is widely believed that Russia was behind a major attack on Estonia in 2007 and similar assaults on Georgia a year later. Chinese cyber-spies have been publicly accused by U.S. officials of penetrating Pentagon defense secrets.

Now in Washington it has become an official view that the U.S. has been cast as the most vulnerable power. According to Shane in The National Journal, “cyberspace is the domain that, as of now, the United States stands the greatest chance of ceding to another nation. America has no credible deterrent, and our adversaries prove it every day by attacking everywhere.”

“Given the utter dependency of the U.S. on information networks and electronic communications to run our daily lives, policy-makers now understand what the consequences of an attack could be,” Shane said he has concluded from interviews with U.S. officials.  Defenses are being built in response to the perceived gravity of the threats. “Protecting the power-grid is the hottest of hot-button topics.”

Of course, an effective “deterrent” is the capability to electronically disable the power-grids and banking systems of an antagonist. So far as is known, the U.S. has until now been guided by a principle of restraint and avoided any cyber-offensive (or even the threat of one), apparently because of fear among U.S. military strategists that such warfare can quickly spiral out of control. In Iraq, for example, contingency plans to attack banking systems in Baghdad were aborted by the Bush administration when it was decided that such electronic attacks might have damaging spillover effects on the financial networks of other nations such as France.

Now, however, the time may have come for a shift in U.S. strategy, to include a more “aggressive” capability as a deterrent to other nations’ build-up of their cyber-forces. Shane noted that President Barack Obama has moved ahead with the Bush administration’s Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative (CNCI) by creating a post of “cyber-czar,” who will have a White House responsibility for coordinating and implementing U.S. actions in developing capabilities for defense and for offense in cyberspace. The likely candidate for this post Army Lt. General Keith Alexander, currently head of the NSA, has said that it is time for the United States to adopt the cyber-equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine, an early 19th doctrine that declared the North American continent off limits to foreign intervention. The 21st century equivalent would stipulate exactly what Washington considers to be an “act of war” in cyberspace and what steps the U.S. government would take to resist threat of this sort.