Pentagon Prepares for Cyber-War

The Pentagon is finishing up new guidelines on its cyber-war strategy, illustrating how serious the U.S. government considers hacking and the complexities in responding to it.

The Pentagon plans to implement a strategy to deal with the growing threat of hackers sabotaging subways, electrical grids, financial systems and even nuclear reactors. Reportedly, the agency has been working on such a plan for two years and intends to formally introduce it soon.

Public statements on the issue by Deputy defence Secretary William Lynn suggest the government has a broad game plan, including guidelines for peacetime espionage, wartime retaliation and how to deal with neutral countries.

For example, the plan details how the military will be able to send computer code to test connections, much like they use satellites to take pictures of locations and scout military capabilities. This isn’t significant in peacetime, but in times of war, the plan provides “passive” code that may be used as a channel for an offensive attack.

In addition, the outline approves retaliation measures such as shutting down servers in foreign countries, and the right to pursue attackers across national boundaries, even if those are virtual network lines.

Finally, the proposal would not permit the U.S. to deliberately route a cyber-attack through another country if that nation has not given permission. This mirrors the practice today where U.S. fighter jets need permission to fly through another nation’s airspace.

The guidelines may be needed sooner, rather than later, if the recent pattern of cyber intrusions continues. Already, hackers have breached military networks, including defence contractor Lockheed Martin, an attack described as “significant and tenacious.”

In addition, a Chinese-based “spear-phishing” hack attacked the Gmail accounts of certain prominent officials, military leaders and journalists, raising concerns about the connections of those targeted in the sophisticated breach.

The defence Department is now sharing classified threat intelligence with companies to help them identify and block these possible attacks. In addition, authorities are trying to coordinate big industry players to develop and adopt standards to prevent their data from being targeted by these attacks.

The issue of cyber-attacks is extremely complicated and requires, like traditional attacks, a comprehensive strategy. The agency is expected to further define functions, like the cyber-command, and clarify roles, such as the extent civilian Pentagon employees can play in offensive military cyber-assaults.

“There’s a strong likelihood that the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyber-attack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental systems,” said Leon Panetta, the outgoing CIA director and incoming Pentagon chief, underscoring the seriousness and urgency of the situation.

As for the chances that we could see a cyber-war, Deputy defence Secretary Lynn said the chances are high.

“Regrettably, few weapons in the history of warfare, once created, have gone unused,” Lynn said. “For this reason, we must have the capability to defend against the full range of cyber-threats.”

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