Secret Cyber Wars The US Military Is Fighting Right Now – War, it never changes- except it now officially has. Right this very moment as you reading this article are on the frontlines of a new world war. It is an undeclared conflict with no rules, no standing armies, and no clear-cut objectives other than to do as much harm to the other side as possible.
Even the identity of the combatants is often murky, as are the sources of individual attacks. But in many of these operations, you are either an unwitting participant, or a victim. Whether you realize it or not, you are on the frontlines of the greatest war the world has ever known. The internet has brought us many things, and brought the world closer together than ever.
The internet economy now makes up a small, but significant percentage of world GDP, and generates trillions of dollars in economic activity. Many people spend their entire lives connected, their jobs are online as are their social lives and even their entertainment.
In today’s interconnected world, the internet is the bedrock of our modern civilization. Yet for all the wonderful things the internet has done for us, it has also created a new region for conflict between nations. This new battle space is murky, and nations can hide their attacks or even disguise the mas originating from an innocent third party.
Where once war was a pretty clear-cut and straight forward concept, cyber war is ambiguous and full of mystery, and even just understanding who attacked you can be a difficult and confusing affair. The major players in this global cyber war are already known to most of the world.
China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran are internationally recognized as being the worst offenders and most cyber belligerent nations in the world. This should come as no surprise, as all of these nations face a real-world geopolitical situation where they are mostly isolated internationally, with few if any friends.
China may be a hugely important part of the world economy, but it has no friends on the world stage save those it has temporarily bought for itself with predatory loans in Africa. Its bullying actions against its neighbors has actually worked against its own self-interests, and brought neighbors such as Vietnam closer to the US in a bid to resist Chinese hostility.
On the same note, Russia has for a long time isolated itself from the international community. Though Boris Yeltsin requested to join NATO back in 1991, at the time the scars of the Cold War were too fresh within the European community, and Russia’s intentions were mistrusted.
When Vladimir Putin requested again in 2000 and then made an overture for a unified Europe in 2003, his requests were again dismissed by NATO allies not ready to trust Russia and its intentions. Given the poor record of Russia’s democracy, which is today largely a sham, and its belligerent attitude towards its Baltic neighbors, it’s hardly surprising that NATO wasn’t quite ready to accept an olive branch.
Perhaps though there could have been a relational restart if Russia had joined NATO, although most NATO members were unwilling to take the risk- specially as Russia specifically wanted the US to play a much lesser role in the alliance. Sadly, Russia’s- and before that, the Soviet Union’s- past behavior had painted it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and NATO members felt more comfortable with the status quo.
Presently Russia is seeking to restore its influence around the world, but specifically in the Baltic states region. For Russia, restoring the Baltic nations to client-nation status is a critical security concern, as the vast European plain makes an invasion from the west into Russia extremely easy should NATO ever go to war with Russia.
On the far east side of the plain, Russia is currently forced to defend a very wide border against a potential invader, but if it could push its influence westwards, it would be able to stage forces on the narrower, western part of the European plain and in turn bottleneck any invaders attempting to attack it.
While for most westerners the thought of an invasion of Russia is laughable, we have to consider that Russia has throughout the 19th and 20th centuries suffered terribly at the hands of European invaders. From Germany in both world wars to France during the Napoleonic wars, Russia has for two centuries been a massive victim of European aggression.
Thus it’s understandable that it wishes to restore a security buffer between itself and NATO. Iran and North Korea both share similar goals and interests, namely causing as much economic harm to their international foe, the United States, as possible through any means necessary.
For both nations though, the use of cyber weapons is similar in strategic thought to the potential use of nuclear weapons- both nations want to make it clear that they can hurt the United States bad enough to deter an invasion. All of these nations are declared cyber actors against the United States, and have on numerous occasions been discovered as the perpetrators of various attacks against America.
This is going to come as a surprise to some of our viewers, but yes, Russia did indeed hack the 2016 election- this is a fact verified by numerous military and federal authorities. Robert Mueller’s investigation also confirmed this fact, though it did not find evidence of direct collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Russian interference and possible collaboration between an American presidential campaign are two separate issues- and one of them has been decidedly proven. The Russian attacks against the Democratic party in the US, as well as the massive disinformation campaign that Russia undertook on social media to support the Republican campaign, all fall directly in line with previous Russian a symmetrical attacks against other NATO countries- though until 2016 it never dared to interfere in American elections.
Back in 2004, Putin ordered a new age of Russian foreign policy that included the manipulation of its geopolitical rivals. Being hopelessly outgunned by NATO allies and unable to defeat the west militarily, Putin instead sought to slowly work to dissolve the bonds that held NATO together, as well as to sway national elections towards candidates friendly towards Russian interests- especially in the Baltics.
One high-profile example of Russian meddling was its interference in Ukrainian politics between 2010 and 2014. Ukraine had been on a path to NATO membership but due to the influence of pro-Russian politicians,this was halted and instead Ukraine declared itself a neutral European power.
Unfortunately for Putin, his election meddling backfired and in 2016 Ukraine made joining NATO a national policy goal, and hopes to become a member in the next 25 or so years. Yet this is hardly the only example of election meddling by Russia. In the French 2017 election, Russia hacked Emmanuel Macron’s personal email and released a trove of private emails, while running a digital disinformation campaign aimed at promoting their preferred far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
In Austria the far-right Freedom Party gained several important political positions, and immediately after the election Putin’s government and these far-right members struck several key diplomatic agreements. In Germany, Russia launched the same style of digital disinformation campaign that it had used in the US to great success, though the robustness of the German political system saw this tactic fail and the results of the election which kept Angela Merkel in power-a fierce opponent of Putin- remained largely unaffected.
In the UK though Russian support for far-right politicians met with what might have been its greatest success. Further digital disinformation campaigns helped fuel the fire that saw the British vote to leave the European Union, a move which will not only weaken Britain, but the Union as well.
In every nation attacked, Russia uses the same tactics: it supports far-right politicians and stokes up the flames of nationalism, relying on naive patriotism to blind voters to its own interference. Nationalistic candidates also further help Russia achieve its goals of dismantling the system of alliances that has kept NATO strong for decades, as nationalistic politicians distrust and dislike international institutions and often engage in protectionist politics that isolates their nation from the world.
Another key goal of Russian election interference however is to work to sow mistrust and confusion amongst the voters of a democratic system, so as to further weaken the democratic institutions themselves. Sadly, Putin has been extremely capable of doing this in his own country, and this explains how he has remained in power for so long.
If Putin can make his neighbors mistrustful of their democracies though, it will make it easier to bring them back into the Russian fold politically, and restore Putin’s stated goal of a new war saw pact. If Putin is able to cause the citizens of America, France, Britain, and other nations to also question their own democratic institutions, or help elect nationalistic, far-right candidates, then he knows these nations will be too internally distracted to oppose him on the world stage.
Or simply won’t care. So far, his plans have worked like a charm. China on the other hand has much different goals in its constant cyber war against the United States. While China has also attempted to influence American elections, mostly through laundered money given to political superpacs in the US, it is mostly focused on waging a war of industrial and economic espionage against America.
China for a long time has had a serious internal problem- while it consumed many of the world’s leading technologies, it produced very few technological breakthroughs of its own. This is especially true in the defense sector, where China simply does not produce any significant military technology developments of its own.
As one American general put it, “China steals a lot of tech, but innovates very little of its own. ”And China does steal a lot of tech. It is widely believed that today China is the single largest actor in the global cyberwar, and has stolen, or attempted to steal more data than any number of other nations combined.
American defense companies are very often the targets of Chinese attacks, and to date China’s greatest success was its penetration of the American F-35 program. While it was unable to steal enough data to create a peer-competitor aircraft to the F-35,it did manage to steal enough to leapfrog decades of its own research and development into stealth aircraft, and managed to produce the ‘poor man’s’ version of a modern stealth fighter, the J-31.
Skeptics of Chinese theft of F-35 technology need only look at a J-31 and immediately see that the aircraft is almost a carbon copy of the F-35. Recently China attempted to penetrate the servers of General Dynamics in a bid to stealtop-secret US plans for advanced submarine prototypes, but were only successful in stealing restricted, but not classified information of no actual value.
Targeting the US military, Chinese cyber attacks have also attempted, and at times been extremely successful in penetrating American military networks. Other Chinese targets in America include software firms and big aerospace developers such as Boeing and SpaceX- who face almost daily cyber attacks, many originating from China.
The US however is not completely helpless in these attacks, although it should be noted that for a long time the United States was grossly deficient in its ability to protect its cyber assets. The theft of F-35 secrets was a huge wake-up call to the American government, and since then it has taken significant steps to protect itself.
Yet as one American cyber warfare leader noted in a congressional testimony before the Armed Services Committee, the cyber domain is the only war fighting domain that the US does not have an overwhelming advantage in. Here the United States is operating on a level playing field, and has none of the significant advantages that it enjoys in every other war fighting realm.
From time to time though, the US does flex its cyber muscles, although a variety of factors make it difficult for it to do so. In response to the hack of Sony pictures by North Korea who wished to damage the company for releasing The Interview, a film that makes fun of Kim Jong-un, the United States warned North Korea by shutting down the internet across the entire nation for ten hours.
While this retaliatory attack was never publicly declared, many cyber security experts point out that it was far too much of a coincidence for it to have been an accident. The problem with US’s capabilities in the cyber domain is not a lack of technical expertise though, its a problem with policy.
Unlike authoritarian nations such as China and Russia, the cooperation between the US government and the commercial sector in the cyber realm is not as strong. This is due to a general mistrust by the American private sector of government interference,and a strong emphasis on privacy by American culture.
In China and Russia, this is not nearly as large a concern, and close cooperation between digital companies and the government is par for the course. American companies however are reluctant to share the inner workings of their software with the American government, and this makes it more difficult to cooperate in the case of an attack, or to help predict vulnerabilities to future attacks.
In the end, cyber warfare is only going to escalate between nations, especially as these other nations fail to be able to challenge the US militarily or economically. Thanks to the internet though, they may never need to, and an aggressive cyber warfare campaign can accomplish many of the same deterrent effects that traditional firepower has in the past.
The real question though is when does a cyber attack step over the line and necessitate a military response? How many hacks of American industrial secrets by the Chinese, or how much interference in American politics by Russia is enough to warrant a physical response? After all if either of these nations launched even a small physical attack against the US, you can be sure that the American military would respond.
For now, the best defense against foreign attacks here in the US and in other nations is to keep yourself informed. Whether you agreed to be a part of this war or not, you are officially on the frontlines of it, and every time you log into Facebook or Twitter or even Instagram you are a part of this fight.
Fake news stories are created by the thousands in disinformation campaigns generated by hostile overseas powers, so the best way to defend your democracy may be what’s always been the best way from looking stupid in public- fact check everything you read, and don’t believe anything that happens to sound too perfectly outrageous. Should NATO ever respond with military action against cyber attacks? Comment and let us know.