29 April 2018

The battlefield of information warfare has been leveled


Warfare used to be somewhat predictable. Your enemy wore a different uniform, the bad guys tried to kill you with bullets and bombs, the food was awful and things went “boom” in the night. The new reality is strikingly different. Combat can now be waged without so much as a puff of smoke. As with kinetic conflict, there will be winners and losers. Information and cyber is perhaps the most acute issue for military and counter-terrorism planners and operators. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the next likely crisis to confront the West may be the result of Russia or an Islamist terror group attacking critical infrastructure or military grids. The propagation of asymmetric warfare has been increasingly mitigated by the obtainability of, and the surge in information operations. The result could be vast pecuniary and societal damage to the U.S. and our allies.

The former chief of the British Army says Russia is now deploying “hybrid weapons,” from cyberattacks and fake news to corruption and assassination. Gen. Sir Nick Carter believes this threat, spearheaded by Moscow, is a greater peril to the West than terrorism. Carter, in an address to the Royal United Services Institute, said Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the “arch exponent” of clandestine combat and “represents the most complex and capable state-based threat … since the end of the Cold War.”

Kremlin operations have radically evolved since Ronald Reagan. There has been a decided shift toward information warfare, destabilization and intimidation, coupled with complex smear campaigns and fake news. That Russia is in phase one of a cyberwarfare crusade is blindingly apparent. The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the Australian Cyber Security Center (ASCS) joined with the FBI and Homeland Security to warn that Russian hackers are targeting critical infrastructure, including the power grid, financial institutions, the military, healthcare and even the UK parliament.

The FBI has “high confidence” that Russian state-sponsored hackers are using infected hardware to perform espionage, maintain access to networks, and “lay a foundation for future offensive operations.” Unlike Western nations, the Russians are not afraid to fail on the cyber battlefield. The Kremlin runs cyber operations using the model of a plucky technology startup. They are nimble, experimental and will try thousands of alternatives until one works. Unfortunately, one fruitful breach is all it takes. Moscow’s effectiveness with “fake news” is predicated on this startup methodology for cyberwarfare. 

The warnings of Russian incursions into critical networks is unsettling on many levels. The alert states categorically that Russian’s are probing routers and other critical network devices. The alert articulates that prevailing network vulnerabilities, paired with a sustained “worldwide” offensive Russian cyber operation, “threatens the safety, security, and economic well-being of the United States.” Until now concerns had been largely centered on social media, voting systems, and utilities such as water and electricity. 

While not new, the approach is indicative of Russian information warfare. They target the weakest link in the ecosystem, routers — both enterprise and home — and the “protective” hardware. In tandem, Moscow is targeting mass consciousness and public opinion via proxy hackers running "man-in-the-middle" attacks. 

But what to do?

Sanctions and “public shaming” were a necessary but largely ineffective first step. To be effectual, they should be both hardened and broadened. The organizations carrying out destabilization operations need to be targeted and the oligarchs should feel the pressure at the ATM. Additional “made for television.” Indictments of foreign actors are likewise pointless. 

Putin, like most dictators, exploits perceived weakness and only respects strength. To this end, the U.S. should actively back allies to inhibit the Kremlin, while, taking an offensive information warfare posture toward Russia, Iran and North Korea. The cost to our foes for incursions and interference must massively outweigh the ostensible advantage. 

Seldom do I quote a Marxist; however, Leon Trotsky’s advice is prescient in this instance, “you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”

Gregory Keeley is a retired lieutenant commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. LCDR Keeley also served as senior adviser to a vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), and to a chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). He was also the National Cybersecurity Institute’s inaugural visiting fellow.

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