InfrastructureU.S. military prepares for offensive cyber warfare

Published 8 April 2008

The new U.S. Air Force Cyber Command said it would be involved in protecting the U.S. critical infrastructure and financial institutions from hackers’ attacks; the military now says that it is preparing for offensive cyber operations

We wrote yesterday about the new U.S. Air Force Cyber Command planning to get
involved in thwarting hackers’ attacks on U.S. critical
infrastructure and financial institutions. This is not the only thing the new
command plans for itself. U.S. military officials
seeking to boost the nation’s cyberwarfare capabilities are looking beyond
defending the Internet: They are developing ways to launch virtual attacks on
enemies. First, though, the military will have to figure out the proper
boundaries. “What do we consider to be an act of war in cyberspace?”
asked Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., who heads the Air Force’s cyberoperations
command. “The military is not going to tend to do that (use virtual strike
capabilities) until you cross some line that constitutes an act of war.”
Elder said initial uses likely would be limited to diverting or killing data
packets that threaten the nation’s systems, the way the military may intercept
a foreign ship carrying arms in international waters. The remarks came late
Friday during a New York chapter meeting of
the Association for Intelligence Officers, a nonprofit group for current and former intelligence
agents and their supporters.

AP reports that in an
interview afterward, Elder said that in the future, the military might rely
upon network warfare to disrupt an enemy’s communications system, replacing the
need for conventional weapons like bombs. In any such scenario, Elder said the
military would be restricted by the same rules of engagement — such as
requirements for a formal declaration of war - that apply to conventional attacks.
Elder said that during the early days of the Iraq war, rudimentary forms of
cyberattacks were used by the United States, including electronically jamming
Iraqi military systems and using network attacks to hinder Iraqi ground units
from communicating with one another. The military’s offensive capabilities have
improved since then, he said. As the military increasingly relies on networks
and computer systems to communicate and coordinate conventional operations, the
U.S. Air Force is planning to establish by October a Cyber Command for waging a
future war that is fought not only by land, sea and air but also in cyberspace.
Hackers with a foreign government or terrorist group potentially could bring
down military and civilian Web sites using what is known as a denial-of-service
attack — flooding the computer servers with fake
traffic such that legitimate visitors can’t get through. Enemies also could
look for security vulnerabilities to break into key systems that run power
plants, refineries and other infrastructure. Already, the Chinese government
has been suspected of using the Web to break into computers at the Defense
Department and other U.S. agencies in what was
dubbed Operation Titan Rain. Since 2001 Chinese “hacktivists” have
organized attacks on and defaced U.S. Web sites to oppose what they call the
imperialism of the United States and Japan.


Elder outlined several defensive
initiatives aimed at deterring cyberattacks on the United States. The military, for
instance, needs to demonstrate that its conventional operations still could
function even if the network is disrupted. To do that, he said, the military
has been identifying “what if” loss scenarios and figuring out the
backup capabilities needed to overcome them. Forensics capabilities also are
being developed, he said, to identify who is attacking, even if the attacker
tries to hide by spoofing the identity of packets and rerouting them through
intermediary computer
. That way, the United States can make a credible
threat of retribution.