The Problem of Siloed Cyber Warriors

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The isolation of cyber as an entirely independent domain of warfare is both inaccurate and dangerous.

Today, the Pentagon faces an essential task, to integrate cyber capabilities with warfighting in the physical world.

Cyber capabilities cannot be detached from other domains of warfare, such as electromagnetic, air, land, sea, and space. The future holds two potential battlefields that overlap: one fought between high-tech adversary militaries, and another, between highly specialized military units and insurgent forces in population-dense urban environments. In both situations, cyber capabilities must be integrated into all other domains of warfare.

For instance, on the night of May 2, 2011, two stealthy Black Hawk helicopters carrying U.S. Navy SEALs transited contested airspace en route to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. There, they found and killed al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden. As the Black Hawks descended on the compound, a Pakistani computer consultant tweeted, “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 AM (is a rare event),” followed by a real-time stream of updates on what was suppose to be a clandestine operation.

While the breach of operational security and broadcasting of events to thousands of people did not botch the operation, it illustrates the future of warfare in the Information Age. Furthermore, terrorist groups now plan, disseminate know-how, and command attacks over the same digital channels friends use to plan social gatherings. Encrypted communications make it difficult to penetrate malicious rings. Yet technology also protects ordinary conversations from malicious eavesdropping. 

Advances in commercial drone technology present a novel threat. Insurgents now have air power. Groups like Hezbollah and ISIS already use small drones to film recruitment messaging, facilitate tactical maneuver and targeting, and deploy improvised explosives. ISIS manufactures its own drones from widely available parts. 

What if urban militants of the future get their hands on commercial blueprints and use 3-D printers to build swarms of drones guided by a neural “hive mind?”

To counter technological challenges, militaries can’t launch a $3 million surface-to-air missile every time somebody sends a $200 quadcopter aloft. Besides, that missile may kill civilians and create more insurgents. Broad-spectrum signals jamming could knock down that drone, but indiscriminate jamming could also disrupt legitimate commercial systems – everything from iPhones to ATMs depend on GPS.

Instead, there are a number of targeted electronic warfare methods than can be used in tandem with cyber capabilities that don’t carry the risk of alienating people living in sprawling megacities like Rio, Lagos, or Karachi.

However, to integrate and implement cyber capabilities, the Pentagon needs to break down the silos that separate cyber from other domains of warfighting.

Jacquelyn Schneider, an assistant professor and core faculty member of the Center for Cyber Conflict Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, argues that field operators, are often “unaware of potential offensive cyber capabilities to support conventional domains of warfighting, nor are they authorized to execute any of these cyber capabilities.”

Administrative impediments – along with the legacy of secrecy at the National Security Agency – hinders operators from integrating cyber tools into their tactical toolkits.

Integrating cyber into regular warfare will take a while. The first step should be to overlay cyber with electronic warfare missions. As John Dickson, a principal at the Denim Group and a former U.S. military intelligence officer, points out, “the U.S. should revisit its current approach, apply what it learned over the last several decades in the electronic warfare realm, and more tightly integrate electronic warfare with recently-developed cyber capabilities.”

Other states are already employing cyber warfare and electronic warfare capabilities under the same framework. China has sought to view cyber warfare as an aspect of the People’s Liberation Army’s new “integrated network electronic warfare” concept. Its plan for coordinated use of cyber operations, electronic warfare, and kinetic strikes are designed to create blind spots in enemy command-and-control and intelligence capabilities.

Russia also seeks to integrate a barrage of cyberattacks and signals jamming, much as it did just before it invaded Crimea in 2014. 

Cyber-enabled disruption may at times work better than old-fashioned jamming. For example, while countries such as Russia and China can use signals jamming to prevent remotely-controlled U.S. drones from entering their airspace, that technique won’t prevail if the U.S. develops a drone with significant artificial intelligence so that it can perform with a certain level of autonomy, despite a severed control link. Only by breaching the drone’s computer network or a physical strike could the drone be stopped.

When Israeli fighters flew into Syrian airspace in 2007 to bomb a suspected nuclear materials facility, the Syrian government was unaware until too late because the Israelis had breached Syria’s air defense radar systems. By intruding into their communications networks, the Israeli military took administrative control of the radars and manipulated data streams to hide its fighters.

Since the U.S. wants to maintain its global position in the face of evolving asymmetric security threats and competing states, it must urgently develop a framework for integrating cyber capabilities into all aspects of its warfighting.

“The state that will succeed at cyber warfare of the future is the one that understands the link between conventional operations and cyber capabilities and vulnerabilities,” says Schneider.

Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.