Features, Online — March 5, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Cyber Warfare: Where the 21st Century Conflicts Will be Fought

By Ty Cobb* —

Attacks on critical installations by computer implanted viruses and codes are multiplying, both in volume and in terms of effectiveness. The attacks have been initiated by nation states, but also by increasingly sophisticated, politically-motivated groups in industrialized countries.

The most recent attack launched by a presumed nation-state was the Stuxnet virus, designed to cripple the Iranian nuclear program. Suspicion as to the source falls, of course, on Israel, with suggestions of U.S. involvement as well. CBS’s “60 Minutes” had an excellent analysis of the Stuxnet program and its impact on Iran recently. The segment also made it clear that such expertise is now not only a capability that a county like Israel could devise, but one that many adversarial nations can most likely develop fairly soon (if they haven’t already).

In the past few years we have witnessed a number of very effective cyber attacks. In 2004, U.S. Homeland Security experts discovered an ongoing series of attacks on Defense, State, Energy and DHS sites as well as defense contractors. The cyber spy ring was traced to computers in Guangdong, China, with the belief that the PRC military was the instigator (China has denied it).

Russia launched crippling attacks on Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008—in the latter more than 2,000 Georgian government computers were taken down and the Foreign Ministry’s own website was hacked and modified with anti-Tbilisi messages!

While countries like China and Russia are believed to have been behind many attacks, increasingly the culprits are non-governmental entities like “Anonymous,” which is a loose coalition of “activists.” While best known for attacks on FOX News host Bill O’Reilly and the Church of Scientology, more recently Anonymous targeted Egyptian government websites during the Arab Spring and crippled Cairo’s government operations by sending offices thousands of faxes. They also have taken credit for shutting down the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice, and yes, the CIA, and virtually bringing down STRATFOR. A similar group, “Lulzsec,” hacked into numerous government websites seemingly randomly, since it has no known political motivations, and also crippled Sony’s PlayStation.

Watch the “60 Minutes” Stuxnet program and keep in mind that, while we have little sympathy for Tehran having its nuclear program stymied, similar capabilities are most likely available—and probably in place—to attack and cripple our vulnerable systems that depend on computer operations.

Experts believe that the Chinese have the capability to do great damage to our economic system when they choose. The small probes we see almost every day are characteristic of a well managed effort to test and expand the state of art and find additional weaknesses. Some have speculated that China already has developed (and maybe surreptitiously deployed) the capability to destroy, cripple, or immobilize vital American systems dependent on computer operations, from our electrical transmission grids to our power systems (including large dams), air traffic control operations, and, most likely, any military application.

That’s the next war, folks, and it could be over in a matter of seconds, with no blood spilled or troops even mobilized. Beijing knows that—do we?


*Dr. Cobb was a professor at West Point and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army in the years just prior to the Reagan Administration. He consulted with the National Security Council during the latter half of the Carter administration and the early Reagan administration on international energy issues. At the start of the Reagan administration, Dr. Cobb was on an exchange in the Soviet Union. After the change in National Security Advisor to William Clark and Deputy Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Cobb was asked to submit strategy papers regarding the long-range strategic position of the United States vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. As a result of these papers he was asked to join the NSC staff as a member of the European and Soviet Affairs Directorate to work on European issues and Canada, and to provide some input on long-range strategic Soviet policy. He took Dennis Blair’s slot within this directorate. Cobb worked very closely with Peter Sommer and they divided responsibility for 34 countries among themselves. Cobb was responsible for France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Austria, the Vatican, etc. As part of his Soviet responsibilities, Cobb attended the Geneva and the Reykjavik summits. In 1988, Cobb took Robert Dean’s place as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the International Programs and Technology Affairs Directorate, with responsibility for science & technology agreements, export policy, United Nations issues, and the environment. He became President and CEO of the Business Executives for National Security (BENS) in 1991, then left to become President/CEO of the Yosemite National Institutes (1995-2002). He returned to his home town of Reno, NV, where he heads up the Northern Nevada Network as well as the National Security Forum. Dr. Cobb received a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a B.A. from the University of Nevada. He is married to Suellen Small of Reno, NV. They have three children.

Image courtesy of Wired.

One Comment

  1. “That’s the next war, folks, and it could be over in a matter of seconds, with no blood spilled or troops even mobilized” I would have thought someone who was a prof at West Point would know better than to come out with statements like that. This argument has surfaced a lot lately and holds a close resemblance to Sun Tzu’s ‘ideal war’ – subduing the enemy without fighting. How very appealing! The concept of a bloodless victory under the weight of new technology litters our military history, and in the age of such tremendous advancements in technology it is tempting to relinquish strategy to the inanimate shortcut. Unfortunately history also highlights the lack of victory in conflict without the use of brute force and there is no logical reason (unless you wish to go against the entirety of military history) to believe the introduction of cyber activities will alter this – or at least it must fuel skepticism over the apparent new dawn in warfare. Further, much of this slides in the easy scaremongering category which those like Richard Clarke seem to be making their name (not to mention the cash). Much of the apocalyptic scenarios are unfounded. The evidence and analysis of such opinion is strikingly absent, and if you’ve actually read anything about the attacks on Estonia and Georgia, they were hardly ‘crippling’. Simply, and crudely, there are other military capabilities that are far better at killing people and causing destruction. You also raise the points of Russia and China. It is true that they are both technically capable of CNA (and there is evidence) but they are also furiously worried about their domestic problems – both are fearing collapse of political power and controlling their own population. Both certainly have nothing that compares to ‘weapons grade’ cyber capability. In fact, the only example that comes close to such a description through its complexities would be Stuxnet…., and we all know who was behind that.

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