Russia's Cyberattack on Georgia

While the conflict between Russia and Georgia may not have surprised many in the foreign policy arena, at least one aspect of the conflict was unprecedented.  Recent reports have indicated that the Russian invasion of Georgia was preceded by extensive cyberattacks on the country’s government and financial computer systems and these attacks have continued into the occupation period.  

The effect on the military campaign of these attacks may have been only minimal in technologically-limited Georgia, and it cannot be conclusively demonstrated that Russia was even responsible for these attacks.  Still, it may soon occur to many national leaders that targeted cyberattacks on a country’s technological and Internet infrastructure are a highly effective technique to create confusion and make a country more vulnerable to a planned military action against it.   Cyberattacks are an evolving technology in the military arsenal and one that will receive more attention in the coming months.

Not long ago, cyberspace was a futuristic concept bandied about only in the circles of science fiction enthusiasts.  Few outside this group could conceive how this new domain would facilitate the activities of an increasingly connected global community; still fewer imagined the significant role it would play in future military operations.  

Now that cyberspace has now become a full-fledged reality, cyberthreats in that arena are being carefully considered by many of the Pentagon’s leading generals.  The recent annual threat assessment, presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, highlights America’s vulnerability to an increasing range of hostile actions in cyberspace by state and non-state actors alike.  It is clear that as the 21st century unfolds, America must be capable of confronting threats to our use of this new domain.

But confronting threats in cyberspace is no simple matter, and our vulnerabilities in this arena are not merely confined to computer systems.  John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation which advocates for first amendment rights in the digital arena, defined cyberspace as "the nexus of computer and telecommunications networks."  This underscores the importance of communications pathways — many of which are routed through outer space — to cyberspace itself.  From a military perspective, an increasing percentage of military operations occur in cyberspace and are integrated with and dependent on communication satellite systems in outer space.

Recently, I was a guest speaker at an Air Force strategic planning conference in which the service’s senior leaders discussed the role the Air Force would play in defending our nation and its interests in the 21st century.  Often, the military is accused of fighting the last war, but I was struck by the foresight of these Air Force leaders as they discussed ways in which the service could be better organized to address the risks resulting from increasing presence in cyberspace.

These leaders are acutely aware that space and cyberspace have become inextricably linked in daily military operations.  Without reliable access to both, the United States would be unable to project power and influence globally.  At a moment’s notice, America can deliver humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Pakistan using C-17 transport planes that are guided by a continuous stream of navigation signals from GPS satellites.  

To direct these global relief operations, command centers in the United States make radio calls and send commands through cyberspace, communications that are then routed via satellites in space, to coordinate these humanitarian operations.  Likewise, pilots sitting in Nevada fly Predator spy drones remotely over terrorists in Afghanistan while using internet chat or radio calls to communicate with soldiers on the ground who will engage the terrorists.   Actions such as these require the seamless use of both space and cyberspace.    

As the service with the preponderance of space assets, the Air Force is taking bold steps to capitalize on its strong position in space to prepare to conduct operations in cyberspace.  Last September, the Air Force announced that it would stand up a command of cyberspace.  At the beginning of the year, then Air Force Chief of Staff General Mike Moseley released a vision for his service that incorporates protection of cyberspace as a major component of Air Force operations.  It is not yet clear what direction the recently confirmed Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz will take on the Air Force’s dominion over space and cyberspace, but it appears to be at the top of his agenda.

China’s shooting down of one if its own satellites in 2007 underscored its recognition of the nexus between space and cyberspace and the American military’s increased dependence on the use of both domains to conduct operations.  The Chinese military thus demonstrated its ability to deny our access to cyberspace by destroying communication satellites — identical to the many satellites on which our actions in cyberspace depend.  China is channeling significant resources into its own satellite and space program, which includes replacing all foreign-produced satellites by Chinese-produced ones, developing a new satellite launch complex on Hainan Island, and launching its third manned space mission, Shenzhou VII, in October 2008.  The military implications of this program have not been revealed by China, but the space program clearly advances China’s capacity to deny its adversaries the ability to use space-based defense systems, weapons, and communication systems.   

China also appears to have launched wide-ranging cyberintrusions on numerous computer networks in the United States and Europe.  These intrusions currently appear to be directed at information gathering from government agencies and departments, defense-related think tanks and financial institutions.  The Secretary of Defense noted in a recent report to Congress on the military power of China that the skills and capabilities required for these intrusions could easily be rechanneled into damaging cyberattacks on our government and financial computer systems.  Clearly, cyberspace has become a new battlefield, and our adversaries will attempt to take advantage of our vulnerabilities in this field directly and indirectly.

Cyberwarefare against military and financial technology infrastructure as well as disruption of satellite and communication systems could clearly be critical elements in a plan of asymmetric warfare against the United States or the Western nations in general.  America must be willing to employ both defensive and offensive actions to maintain its access to space and cyberspace — it can ill afford not to.  The question then becomes whether we are organizing ourselves appropriately to protect this domain that is so crucial to our national security.
In the coming year, Congress will conduct a review of the appropriate roles and missions for each service within the Department of Defense.  The purpose of this review is to eliminate redundancies among the services and maximize the effectiveness of each, while avoiding duplication of effort.   It is critical that the discussion of roles and missions address which service or services will command cyberspace most effectively.  In this era of competing budgetary pressures, we cannot allow inter-service squabbles to diminish U.S. military effectiveness.   In its upcoming review of service responsibilities, Congress must designate a lead service for cyberspace.

The opportunities and potential of cyberspace are limitless.  So too are the dangers and challenges.  The recent cyberattacks on Georgia and China’s 2007 anti-satellite test were mere foreshadowings of the challenges America will face in keeping cyberspace usable for American military operations around the world as well as our economic life at home.  Cyberspace is now critical to American national security, and we must be prepared to defend it.


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