TrendGrowing worries, debates about likelihhod, effects of strategic cyber attack

Published 11 September 2007

The spring cyber attacks on Estonia offer an illustration of what strategic cyber warfare may look like; experts debate capabilities, motives for such an attack

Estonia’s cyber infrastructure is attacked by Russian nationalists protesting what they see as an insult to a Russian Second World War memorial in Estonia’s capital? The Chinese military hacks Pentagon computers — and probably German and British government computers as well — in an effort to gather information and in preparation for disrupting these computers during conflict? As cyber attacks can go, these incidents are not much. Imagine this: The lights go out; the internet goes down; banks close; cash machines fail; radio and television stations stop broadcasting; airports and railway stations shut their doors; city streets are jammed with traffic; power and communications are blacked out for weeks, and may not come back for months; food spoils without refrigeration; people panic as looters emerge, and police is unable to restore order; money is out of reach as banks close and ATMs out of operation, so people begin to barter with each other, with the only things of value are fuel, unspoiled food, and water. Now, this is what a real attack by a cyber weapon could look like, according to testimony last week to the U.S. House homeland security committee in April from Sami Saydjari, president of Professionals for Cyber Defense, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization set up to alert the government and public to the dangers of threats from cyberspace. A comprehensive cyber attack, he told the committee, would take the United States “from being a superpower to a third world nation overnight.” Especially troubling, he said, is that “We are a nation unprepared to properly defend ourselves and recover from a strategic cyber attack.”

FT’s Stephen Fidler writes that Saydjari was one of more than fifty signatories of a letter to President George Bush in 2002 calling for a high-priority government program to address the cyber threat along the lines of the Manhattan project, which in the early 1940s built the U.S. atomic bomb. Since that letter was written, he said this week, the risks have increased — not least because the American economy is more interconnected electronically than ever before. Three sectors are most at risk, he says: power, telecommunications, and finance.

Some say that Saydjari’s warnings are overdrawn. James Lewis, a specialist in cyber warfare at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says that cyber weapons for now are less frightening than Saydjari suggests. He says cyber warfare is at about the same stage of development as was air power in 1917-18, being used for reconnaissance and small-scale raids. For the foreseeable future, he says, a military adversary would concentrate on using electronic warfare to infect systems and introduce uncertainty into the minds of military decisionmakers. If commanders begin to doubt the information they are receiving about their own and enemy positions, it could slow down decision making, perhaps decisively. Networked economies have increased vulnerabilities, but many systems are resilient and redundancy is built in. If e-mails fail, we can use mobile phones; if the cellular network goes down, we use landlines. The economic system slows, loses efficiency, but people find ways to work around it.

Experts say that there is another question: Even if an adversary could launch a successful strategic cyber attack, why do so? Cyber attacks do not provide the kind of images that terrorists crave, and many experts think that bringing down electricity grids or crashing phone or financial networks does not really do it from a terrorist’s perspective. What would be the motive of a strategic attack by a state adversary? It was tried in the past — the strategic bombing of the Second World War and the Vietnam war. Exhaustive studies of both strategic bombing campaigns concluded that they had but marginal, if any, effect on the outcomes of both wars.

Fidler writes that even if Lewis’s analogy is right, “it is worth remembering it took just over two decades for the flimsy aircraft of 1917 to develop into the means of wreaking almost unimaginable destruction.”