Kelly McSweeney

Aug 25th 2020

Cyberwar: The Most Stealthy Weapon Is Information


Cyberwar has posed a danger to our nation since the birth of the internet, since any information that can be accessed online through multiple locations is inherently insecure. In the 1983 movie “WarGames,” Matthew Broderick plays a teenaged computer geek who accidentally hacks into a military supercomputer and almost starts World War III. This hyperbolic plot actually led President Ronald Reagan to create the first presidential directive on cybersecurity.

Acceleration Over the Past Decade

Today, cyberwar is an even more serious threat to national security. While we might think of powerful weapons as being physical objects, cyberweapons can steal information. The U.S. military has an arsenal of weapons and sophisticated intelligence, but our high-tech systems also leave us vulnerable to cyberattacks.

There has been an increased frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks in recent years. Over the last decade, battlefields have changed, and combat in cyberspace is tricky because it is invisible and unpredictable. According to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), “Cyberspace is now recognized as a critical domain of operations by the U.S. military and its protection is a national security issue.”

Stuxnet was the first known attack that allowed hackers to manipulate physical objects in the real-world. The Stuxnet worm, which targets industrial control systems, sabotaged the Iranian nuclear industry by attacking uranium sites and making centrifuges explode. In 2012, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. and Israel were behind this cyberweapon, ABC News explained.

What Cyberwar Looks Like

The key to thriving in the modern world is brain over brawn. In business and in battle, information is the new weapon, and it can cause more physical damage than you might expect. As state-sponsored hackers get to work, new types of threats emerge. Cyberespionage involves stealing secrets and obtaining sensitive classified information for military advantage. Another type of cyberweapon involves denial of service, where a computer worm can intentionally overload a federal government system, shutting it down.

Hackers can steal intellectual property and disrupt financial systems, such as the Israeli Tel Aviv stock exchange in 2012. They can also destroy or disable critical infrastructure, such as radar, communications systems, power grids and transportation systems.

Even messing with email can have deadly consequences. National Security Agency (NSA) analysts have supported war fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. By creating false messages and intercepting real ones, they created confusion and distrust among Al-Qaeda. Using these techniques allowed them to lure enemies into traps, which helped kill more than 4,000 insurgents, according to the NSA.

Battlefields Without Boundaries

In an interview with NPR, foreign affairs journalist Fred Kaplan said, “You can count how many intercontinental ballistic missiles each side has. How do you know what kind of cyber tools and techniques one side might have developed? It’s invisible.”

Since our critical systems are online, they’re intrinsically vulnerable. Therefore, defense involves early detection of threats and designing software that’s resilient enough to be repaired quickly. The military must train troops for futuristic battle — cyberwar — while embracing ancient techniques as a backup plan. The U.S. Navy, for example, is training its officers to navigate using stars just in case GPS systems get hacked.

In today’s battleground, information management technologies like Northrop Grumman’s Cyber Warfare Integration Network can link weapon systems together in a network, making the whole stronger than the sum of its parts. This capability empowers our military but makes operations more complicated. In cyberspace, we also lose traditional boundaries, such as borders between countries and the separation between the private sector and government.