U.S. Army kick-starts cyberwar machine

The U.S. military has a new mission: be ready to launch a cyber attack against potential adversaries, some of whom are stockpiling cyberweapons.

Such an attack would likely involve launching massive distributed denial-of-service assaults, unleashing crippling computer viruses or Trojans, and jamming the enemy’s computer systems through electronic radio-frequency interference.

An order from the National Command Authority – backed by President Clinton and Secretary of Defense William Cohen – recently instructed the military to gear up to wage cyberwar.

The ability of the U.S. to conduct such warfare “doesn’t exist today,” according to a top Army official speaking at a conference in Arlington, Va., last month.

“We see three emerging threats: ballistic missiles, cyberwarfare and space control,” said Lt. Gen. Edward Anderson, deputy commander in chief at U.S. Space Command, which was recently assigned the task of creating a cyber attack strategy. “Cyberwarfare is what we might think of as attacks against digital ones and zeros.”

Anderson spoke about the Space Command’s cyberwarfare responsibilities at the National Strategies and Capabilities for a Changing World conference. The event was organized by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the U.S. Army. The conference attracted military top brass and international diplomats.

Anderson told attendees that the U.S. Space Command, the agency in charge of satellite communications, has begun to craft a computer network attack strategy. This strategy would detail actions to be followed by the Unified Commanders in Chief (CINC) if the president and the secretary of defense order a cyber strike. The CINCs are senior commanders in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines deploying U.S. forces around the world.

The information-warfare strategy will be detailed in a defense plan called “OPLAN 3600” that Anderson said will require “unprecedented cooperation with commercial enterprises and other organizations.”

There’s no set deadline for completing OPLAN 3600, Anderson told Network World (US). But he noted that other countries, including Russia, Israel and China, are further along in building their information-warfare capabilities.

Anderson said the U.S. may end up with a new type of weaponry for launching massive distributed denial-of-service attacks and computer viruses. “The Chinese recently indicated they are already moving along with this,” he added.

In addition to the possibility of cybercombat between nations, the military acknowledges that terrorists without the backing of any country can potentially use cyberweapons to disrupt U.S. telecommunications or banking systems that are largely electronic.

That’s one reason the U.S. Space Command is joining with the FBI to build an information-warfare strategy.

“This requires a close relationship between military and law enforcement,” said Michael Vatis, an FBI official who also spoke at the conference. He noted that the FBI will have to help determine if any cyber attack suffered by U.S. military or business entities calls for a military or law enforcement response.

“The Internet is ubiquitous. It allows attacks from anywhere in the world. Attackers can loop in from many different Internet providers,” said Vatis, who noted that a cyber attack can include espionage using computer networks.

“It could start across the street but appear to be coming from China. And something that might look like a hacker attack could be the beginning of cyberwarfare,” he added.

Vatis said the growing bullets-and-guns conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians, with Islamic supporters elsewhere, is being accompanied by cyber attacks from each side against the other. It’s serious enough, he said, that the FBI issued an alert about it to the U.S. Space Command, giving U.S. forces warning that the action on the cyber front could affect them, too.