Cyber warfare has reached a new phase this year—at least in terms of public awareness of the nature of the threat. Nothing is especially new, in truth, at least not capability-wise. But there has been one major development: increased levels of integration between the physical and cyber domains—cyber warfare as an interchangeable battlefield tool, an attack in one domain and retaliation in another. And the catalyst has been the Middle East, the continuing escalation of tensions between the U.S. (and its allies) and Iran. And the small matter of China and Russia—the world’s leading cyber and hybrid warfare protagonists—lurking menacingly on the sidelines.
“When people ask me what keeps you up at night,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a cyber conference in Aspen last week, “that is kind of the thing that keeps me up at night.”
The cyber warfare playing out in the headlines is in itself multidimensional. You are seeing the mix of genuinely military offensive and defensive capabilities, with state-sponsored attacks on civilian targets. Iran clearly understands that retaliation against the U.S. military in the cyber domain might be akin to throwing rocks at a tank, but it can hit the vast and under-protected U.S. corporate sector at will. Make no mistake—everything is connected. Two weeks after U.S. Cyber Command hit Iran’s command and control structure in the aftermath of the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, came its warning that an Iranian-led hack was targeting the millions of unpatched Microsoft Outlook systems.
As I reported at the time, that U.S. cyber response was a game-changer, not the backtrack as was painted. A targeted missile strike makes for good television news, but it is not especially effective. Reaching into the enemy’s most secure networks—seemingly at will—to frustrate operational capability carries terrifying implications, it is devastatingly effective.
You’ll recall the Israeli military did this the other way round—retaliating against a cyber strike with a missile strike targeting the building Hamas cyber operatives had been working from. It was an effective response, and it also sent a message: we won’t fight cyber offensives with clever software and internet stop-gaps—if we know where you are we will destroy you, devastatingly effective in a different way.