17 December 2017



Western military alliance NATO's recent decision to integrate cyber warfare into its command could be its biggest policy shift in decades and represents a stark 21st-century warning to foes, especially Russia, according to one of the leading officials to help draft the new strategy. Capitalizing on the multinational coalition's recognition of cyberspace as a theater of operations at last year's Warsaw Summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced last month the creation of Cyber Operations Center as part of an overall effort to update and adopt a more expansive and efficient command structure. Last week, retired Air Force Colonel Rizwan Ali revealed how the decision, which he helped write and implement, could affect the way NATO conducts operations and counters threats from abroad.

"In short, NATO embraced the use of cyber weaponry in NATO operations. This is a marked departure from NATO’s historical stance of using cyber only defensively, mainly to ward off incursions against its own networks," Ali wrote in Foreign Policy.

"The more aggressive approach was intended as a strong message, primarily to Russia, that NATO intends to use the cyber capabilities of its members to deter attacks in the same way it uses land, sea and air weaponry," he added.

A military specialist presents the NATO Cyber Coalition exercise in Tartu, Estonia, November 29, 2017. The Western military alliance recognized cyberspace as a battlefield like air, land and sea last year, and has since adopted a more aggressive approach to elecronic warfare, according to retired Air Force Colonel Rizwan Ali.INTS KALNINS/REUTERS

Ali said that, although the move went widely unnoticed, it was a historic development not only because it showed NATO forces had "the will to use their cyber capabilities and weaponry during military operations," but also because of how it would be rolled out. When nations have joined NATO they have placed their equipment and crew under the command of a designated NATO commander, who could hail from any of NATO's 29 member states. In the case of the new cyber command, however, Ali said that nations would retain control over their cyber tools, potentially making integration "an uphill battle for NATO."

It isn't the first time NATO has placed electronic warfare on its agenda. In 2008, NATO bolstered its own networks by establishing the Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Estonia after accusing Russia of launching massive cyber attacks on the Baltic state. Estonia, along with fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania as well as nearby Poland, have become the frontlines for NATO's massive military build-up along Russia's borders. NATO's decision to return to its Cold War role as a warfighting command was taken in the wake of Moscow's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian Peninsula and other military moves in the region.

In addition to the proliferation of troops, equipment and conventional weapons, cyber tools have played an increasingly crucial role as a theater of conflict in Europe. In an email to Newsweek, a NATO official said the alliance had experienced about 380 cyber incidents per month for the first six months of 2017. The official said this number amounted to a 20 percent decrease from last year's monthly average, showing that "cyber attackers are changing their tactics, and increasingly targeting softer systems, such as personal devices and networks related to NATO."

While stating that NATO would "remain vigilant, and continue to adapt" to cyber threats, the official emphasized that "NATO is not taking a more aggressive approach on cyber defense." In a separate statement sent to Newsweek, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said that "certain claims" in Ali's article in Foreign Policy are "sensationalist‎, and bear little resemblance to NATO's actual cyber policy and activities, which are and remain defensive and in line with international law."

"I don't think the article contradicts what they're saying," Ali told Newsweek in response to NATO's criticism. "Whether it's more aggressive or not is open to interpretation. I wrote it was a more aggressive approach than the one they had previously adopted."

Germany's electronic warfare military branch, the Cyber and Information Space Command, participates in NATO exercise Cyber Coalition 17.MARTINA PUMP/BUNDESWEHR

From November 28 to December 1, NATO conducted its annual Cyber Coalition exercise in Estonia, training personnel to defend against what the Belgium-based Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe described as "an increase in frequency and sophistication of cyber-attacks." For the first time ever, EU experts and Germany's own recently formed electronic warfare branch, the Cyber and Information Space Command, helped coordinate the exercise.

U.S. Special Forces commander Army General Raymond Thomas also entered the conversation of cyber warfare on Wednesday. Citing previous statements made by Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford, Thomas identified the leading cyber threats as Russia and China, who were in talks of developing their own joint cyber defense in October, Russia's state-run Tass Russian News Agency reported. Both countries have denied hacking the West, and Russia has been extremely critical of what it perceived as U.S. and NATO plans to undermine its national security, but Thomas said Wednesday it was the U.S.'s turn to "attack" and "exploit" using cyber weapons. He noted, however, that the country's capabilities still lagged behind.

"We have the structure and know-how to dominate in this domain, but it requires a focused effort and repetitions matter," Thomas said, according to the Defense Department.

"We are moving in the right direction, but talent and task organization matter," he added.

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