The U.S. has attributed cyber espionage attacks against U.S. government and business entities to the Chinese Government and Military. The more serious secrets stolen to date include technical details of the F-35 fighter jet, F/A-18 fighter jet, Navy Littoral combat Ship, Advanced Patriot missile defense (PAC-3), the Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and the Navy Aegis Ballistic-Missile defense system. In recent months, the U.S. has also ramped up research on offensive cyber warfare technology, in order to provide deterrence.
China is not the only player in the accelerating global cyber war. Iran has successfully penetrated U.S. infrastructure systems, including control systems that run oil, gas, and power companies. While China has focused more on information theft and intelligence gathering, Iran is more focused on potentially disabling real U.S. infrastructure and in that way is more concerning to defense officials. A large scale attack of this nature could disable all or most electronics, money, and communications in the U.S., an event called an “Existential” level attack.
Even Assad’s Syrian Army has made headways into the realm of cyber warfare. With the highly visible hacking of the AP twitter account, in which it was falsely reported that the White House was attacked, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) demonstrated the potential power of information control. The brief stock market crash illustrated the potential danger of even small state sponsored cyber-attacks.
In response to these growing threats, the U.S. is developing a Plan X program for future offensive cyber capabilities. The basic premise is to make cyber warfare similar to an online game. Users can chose from a menu of different, pre made cyber weapons. Without needing to know the specific code used to build the “munitions” the cyber warriors can plan and coordinate attacks using visual mapping. The goal is to industrialize cyber warfare to make it more analogous to traditional warfare. Person vs. person scenarios can be played out virtually, with the results showing the effectiveness of various cyber warfare strategies.
The extent of the cyber-arms race is difficult to judge, because much of the information is classified. This also muddies the public perception of how serious the threat of cyber war really is. While most agree that the U.S. cyber infrastructure is extremely vulnerable, some worry that these threats will be used to justify further intrusions into privacy. The security firms developing the cyber weapons definitely stand to gain financially from having a large government customer.
Perhaps what is most stunning in the U.S. Government’s recent announcements is the admission of the need for deterrence capabilities. Even the Department of Defense’s cyber infrastructure has been deemed “indefensible” against a large scale, state sponsored cyber-attack. Such an attack would not only use known vulnerabilities, or find unknown existing ones, but could actually create new vulnerabilities in the system. The DOD Task Force Report “Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat” concludes that the only defense against such a sophisticated attack is combining the deterrence of offensive cyber weapons with highly protected core groups of defense systems, which would be capable of counterattack. Such an event would be the modern equivalent of thermonuclear war.
The Washington Post, Confidential Report Lists U.S. Weapons System Designs Compromised by Chinese Cyberspies: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/confidential-report-lists-us-weapons-system-designs-compromised-by-chinese-cyberspies/2013/05/27/a42c3e1c-c2dd-11e2-8c3b-0b5e9247e8ca_story.html?hpid=z1
The Washington Post, Chinese Government, military behind Cyberspying: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-chinese-government-military-behind-cyberspying/2013/05/06/f4851618-b694-11e2-b94c-b684dda07add_story.html
Wired, This Pentagon Project Makes Cyberwar as Easy as Angry Birds: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/05/pentagon-cyberwar-angry-birds/
The Wall Street Journal, Iran Hacks Energy Firms, U.S. Says: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323336104578501601108021968.html
National Post, Waging the Cyber War in Syria: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/05/21/ronald-deibert-waging-the-cyber-war-in-syria/
Salon, Is “Cyber War” Just a Scare Tactic? http://www.salon.com/2013/05/26/is_cyber_war_just_a_scare_tactic_partner/singleton/