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09 September 2008, 08:52

Cyberwar: from the defensive over to the offensive?

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The Los Angeles Times reports that "senior military officials" want the Pentagon to take a more aggressive line when conducting cyberwars, instead of concentrating mainly on looking after the security of its own computer systems. The new and more aggressive strategy would accordingly include objectives such as commandeering hostile unmanned aerial drones, causing enemy warplanes to crash, or cutting off the electricity supply to strategic locations, such as military installations.

The report says that for years, there has been a reluctance to militarise what is widely seen as a medium for commerce and communication, but experts, as well as serving and former high-ranking military officers are now pushing for a "provocative new discussion" in the Pentagon in order to change its emphasis. While intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, spying, and securing the US's own systems have hitherto taken priority, the suggestion is that capacities for future cyberspace operations should be considerably extended by setting new objectives.

This change in mindset is said to have been stimulated by reports of possible cyber-attacks on Georgian web sites during the Caucasus conflict. An article recently published by the Pentagon does confirm that Air Force General Victor E. Renuart Jr., who heads the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Command, regards cyberattacks on government web sites in Georgia and Estonia as important "lessons", though he strongly emphasises "strengthening defences" against such attacks.

The Los Angeles Times views the 2006 report "National Military Strategy for Cyberspace Operations", which it says gave the military "the green light" for further development, as the most significant basis for discussions aimed at a change of strategy. That strategy paper called for (PDF) big changes in the conduct of cyberwar, allotting the Air Force a special role, while also for the first time quoting the Defense Department's far-reaching definition of "cyberspace" as a very effective physical domain containing electronic systems and networks that use electromagnetic energy.

When the head of the newly set up Air Force Cyberspace Command extended the definition in April this year – "We define the domain as the entire electromagnetic spectrum" – that was reason enough for Wired to make the mocking assumption that in future "everything from microwaves to radio, to lasers, to x-rays [..] and not just [c]omputer network operations, but [a]lso [e]lectronic warfare, electronic combat and even, potentially, directed energy" will form part of the new domain of cyberspace.

For Michael W. Wynne, who brought the Air Force Cyber Command into life in 2007, cyber-warfare is something less ambiguous. The Los Angeles Times says what he has in mind is a soldier armed with invasive tools that he can shoot at an antenna to input information that will cause damage.


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