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With the Pentagon now officially recognizing cyberspace as a domain of warfare, U.S. military commanders are emphasizing their readiness to defend the nation against cyberthreats from abroad. What they do not say is that they are equally prepared to launch their own cyberattacks against U.S. adversaries.
The importance of plans for offensive cyberwar operations is obscured by the reluctance of the government to acknowledge them. When the Pentagon announced its "Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace" in July 2011, for example, it appeared the military was focused only on protecting its own computer networks, not on attacking anyone else's.
"The thrust of the strategy is defensive," declared William Lynn, the deputy secretary of defense at the time. Neither he nor other Pentagon officials had one word to say about possible offensive cyberattacks. The Pentagon would not favor the use of cyberspace "for hostile purposes," according to the strategy. "Establishing robust cyberdefenses no more militarizes cyberspace," Lynn said, "than having a navy militarizes the ocean."
Those assurances are deceptive. Behind the scenes, U.S. commanders are committing vast resources and large numbers of military personnel to planning offensive cyberattacks and, in at least some cases, actually carrying them out. But the secrecy surrounding offensive cyberwar planning means there has been almost no public discussion or debate over the legal, ethical and practical issues raised by waging war in cyberspace.
Offensive cyberattacks carried out by the United States could set precedents other countries would follow. The rules of engagement for cyberwar are not yet clearly defined. And the lack of regulation concerning the development of cyberweapons could lead to a proliferation of lethal attack tools — and even to the possibility that such weapons could fall into the hands of unfriendly states, criminal organizations and even terrorist groups.
In some cases, offensive cyberattacks are being conducted within the parameters of conventional military operations. In Afghanistan, soldiers and Marines depend heavily on video and data links when they go into combat. As part of the process of "prepping the battlefield," commanders may want to launch pre-emptive attacks on the adversary's cybercapabilities in order to make sure their data networks do not get interrupted.
Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, in a rare acknowledgment that the military engages in offensive cyber operations, discussed just such a situation during a military conference in August 2012.
"I can tell you that as a commander in Afghanistan in the year 2010, I was able to use my cyber operations against my adversary with great impact," Mills declared. "I was able to get inside his nets, infect his command and control, and in fact defend myself against his almost constant incursions to get inside my wire."
Another reference to the military's use of cyberattacks as part of a traditional combat operation came in 2009, during a presentation at the Brookings Institution by Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz. Now retired, Schwartz at the time was serving as Air Force chief of staff. He told his audience that his airmen were prepared to carry out cyberattacks on another country's radar and missile installations before launching airstrikes against that country.
"Traditionally, we take down integrated air defenses via kinetic [physical] means," Schwartz said. "But if it were possible to interrupt radar systems or surface-to-air missile systems via cyber, that would be another very powerful tool in our tool kit." Schwartz hinted that the Air Force already had that capability, and in the nearly four years since he gave that speech, such a capability has certainly matured.
Cyberattacks, however, are also being used independently of traditional or kinetic operations, according to Jason Healey, a former Air Force officer who now directs the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
"It might happen that we will use them as an adjunct to kinetic," Healey says, "but it's quite clear that we're using [cyber] quite a bit more freely."
The best example of an offensive cyberattack independent of a kinetic operation would be Stuxnet, the cyberweapon secretly used to damage nuclear installations in Iran. A U.S. official has privately confirmed to NPR what the New York Times reported last summer — that the United States had a role in developing Stuxnet.
Because the operation has been shrouded in secrecy, however, there has been no public discussion about the pros and cons of using a cyberweapon in the way Stuxnet was used.
Among the top concerns is that other countries, seeing Stuxnet apparently used by the United States and Israel, might conclude that they would also be justified in carrying out a cyberattack. The British author Misha Glenny, writing in the Financial Times, argued that the deployment of Stuxnet may be seen "as a starting gun; countries around the world can now argue that it is legitimate to use malware pre-emptively against their enemies."
Another concern is that the malicious software code in Stuxnet, instructing computers to order Iranian centrifuges to spin out of control, could be modified and used against U.S. infrastructure assets.
"Now that technology is out there," cautions Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "People are taking a look at it. We are just a few lines of code away from someone else getting closer to a very sophisticated piece of malware that they either wittingly or unwittingly unleash across the world [and cause] huge, huge damage."
The absence of debate over the pros and cons of using cyberweapons is in sharp contrast to the discussion of nuclear weapons. The United States has adopted a "declaratory policy" regarding why it has nuclear weapons and when it would be justified to use them. There is nothing comparable for the cyberweapon arsenal.
Rep. Rogers says such gaps in military doctrine and strategy indicate that developments on the cyberwar front are getting ahead of U.S. thinking about cyberwar.
"The capabilities, I think, are keeping pace with technology," Rogers said in an interview with NPR. "It's the policy that I worry about. We have not fully rounded out what our [cyber] policies are."
The advantages of using cyberweapons are clear. They are more precise than bombs or missiles, and because they damage data rather than physical installations, they are far less likely to hurt innocent civilians. But they are new weapons, and critics say their use should be given careful consideration.
"If we are allowing ourselves to go on the offense without thinking about it, we're likely to militarize cyberspace," says the Atlantic Council's Jason Healey. "We will end up with a cyberspace where everyone is attacking everyone else. I don't believe we need to go on the offense just yet. The downside is higher than the government acknowledges."
White House officials are sensitive to the charge that they should promote more public debate surrounding cybercapabilities. "We understand that there is a view that more discussion is needed about how the United States operates in cyberspace," says National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "That's why we've published numerous strategies, testified before Congress dozens of times, and [it is why] senior officials ... have given speeches and spoken at conferences and other public events."
Correction: February 11, 2013 12:00 am — In an early audio version of this story, Lt. Gen. Richard Mills was incorrectly identified as being an Army officer. Mills is a Marine officer.