Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

NSA: Rules of War Apply to Cyberwar, Too

In the tightly controlled discussion about cyber weapons, this counts as a step toward transparency.

The Pentagon keeps its rapidly expanding cyber arsenal almost entirely secret, which helps keep U.S. capabilities potent but also hinders the public’s ability to meaningfully discuss their use and costs. The development of new worms or viruses doesn’t show up in the President’s annual budget request in the same way as does money for jets and tanks; and cyber weapons don’t grace the cover of magazines.

Is there a way to discuss publicly what the future of cyber operations will look like? Defense One recently put the question to Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space conference outside of Washington, D.C.

Rogers indicated, unsurprisingly, that full transparency will remain impossible. But he also opened up, ever so slightly, in promising that Cyber Command would follow international norms in determining how the U.S. uses what are sometimes called offensive cyber capabilities. “Remember, anything we do in the cyber arena … must follow the law of conflict. Our response must be proportional, must be in line with the broader set of norms that we’ve created over time. I don’t expect cyber to be any different,” he said.

Rogers framed the development of cyber weapons as simply the next evolutionary step in warfare, replete with all the ethical concerns that accompanied other milestones in weapons development. “I’m sure there were huge reactions to the development of mass firepower in the 1800s as a new kind of warfighting implement. Cyber represents change, a different technical application to attempt to achieve some of the exact same effects, just do it in a different way. Like those other effects, I think, over time, we’ll have a broad discussion in terms of our sense of awareness, both in terms of capabilities as well as limitations,” he said.

The cyber chief downplayed the difference between offensive cyber capabilities and more familiar types of weapons. “We tend not to get into the specifics of some kinetic systems. I don’t think in that regard that cyber is any different,” he said. (Kinetic weapons cause real physical damage; think bombs and other munitions.)

Rogers’s willingness to speak about the subject at all marks another small step forward in transparency about cyber operations, according to Shane Harris, author of @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex. “In just the past few years, U.S. officials have been talking much more openly both about the use of cyber weapons and what they think the restraints on them should be. Rogers is doing exactly that here,” Harris told Defense One. “There was a time not so long ago when you wouldn't hear a senior U.S. official even acknowledge that we engage in offensive cyber operations.”

In June 2011, the Pentagon acknowledged the existence of a list of secret weapons and offensive capabilities but didn’t detail what the items were. Probably the most famous cyber weapon of all time, the Stuxnet worm that crippled Iranian nuclear enrichment at the Natanz facility in 2010, remains officially unattributed despite wide suspicion that it was built and deployed by the United States, Israel, or both.  

The Real World of Virtual Weapons

Meanwhile, the development of such weapons continues apace, as does their deployment beyond Cyber Command’s office buildings in Virginia. Future battles—at sea, on land and in the air—will have a cyber component handled not just by specialists far from the action but by soldiers at the front, according to operational military leaders who spoke beside Rogers at Sea-Air-Space.

“The risk and the resiliency associated with cyber is owned by the commander,” said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Daniel J. O'Donohue. “We have disassociated that, frankly, by using specialized communities taking risks, acquisition managers taking risk, staffs taking risk on behalf of the commander.”

O’Donohue cautions that the U.S. does not necessarily hold an insurmountable advantage in cyber as a dimension of ground combat.

“How do you put cyber into a campaign? When you look at your enemy through your IPB [intelligence preparation for the battlefield], your terrain also includes the cyber terrain… But there’s no way you can stand up a network when the enemy is practicing 24/7 every day against you,” he said. “How to do you manage your command and control when you are penetrated, while your degraded war-fighting systems are all dependent on the network, and continue to have the resiliency to continue operations at the same time?”

One part of the solution is getting ground commanders much more involved in the creation of cyber warfare capabilities, he said: “If the operational commander doesn’t own this, we’re going to get what the CIO delivers.”

Some weapons that have cyber effects are more obvious than others. Among the more brash (and easy to point to) is the AN/ALQ-231 Intrepid Tiger II electronic warfare pod that can disrupt enemy networks and equipment. Others are more subtle. In his book, Harris discusses how elite NSA hackers with a unit called Tailored Access Operations worked with soldiers on the front lines in places like Iraq to find and manipulate enemy fighters by hacking devices and perpetrating phishing schemes, essentially a feat of online impersonation.

“The U.S. hackers sent fake text messages to insurgent fighters and roadside bombers. The messages would tell the recipient, in effect, ‘Meet at this street corner to plan the next attack,’ or ‘Go to this point on a road and plant your device.’ When the fighter got there, he’d be greeted by U.S. troops, or perhaps the business end of a Hellfire missile fired from a drone aircraft thousands of feet above,” Harris writes.

In the not-too-distant future, troops may carry situational-awareness gear that makes the cyber world relevant to the real battlespace in the same way night- vision goggles reveal what the enemy looks like in the dark. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, or DARPA, recently outlined its new Plan X program: a “foundational cyber warfare program to develop platforms for the Department of Defense to plan for, conduct, and assess cyber warfare in a manner similar to kinetic warfare.”

At the New America Foundation’s Future of War summit in Washington, D.C., in February, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar discussed how the program seeks to give soldiers a way to visualize what’s happening in the local cyber environment: "Maybe they’ll walk through an urban environment…they’ll know a Wifi node has been implicated in a prior act of violence against U.S. troops.”

But giving troops smart-phone apps that tell them about networks and routers on the streets of Mosul is different from developing and deploying cyber weapons that turn off the lights.

Cyber weapons can scale and can replicate automatically. One string of code can potentially dismantle a wide number of enemy systems or aspects of civilian infrastructure. They deploy with the push of a button. But depending on configuration and use, an operator enjoys the luxury of turning the weapon on or off, the basis of what’s sometimes called ransomware, where an attacker locks down a system and then releases it upon receiving payment. The same tactic on the battlefield could be a way to force an opponent to submit or surrender without a shot being fired and without any equipment being lost on either side. “This versatility offers at least one set of capabilities that can operate in the transition space between diplomacy and military action, as well as more squarely in the military domain,” Maren Leed wrote in a 2013 paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies on future cyber offensive operations.

Rogers’s assurance that the U.S. will follow the laws of conflict in how it deploys cyber weapons is significant. But since such weapons can be constructed in secret, and, often, offer victims no way to determine attribution, the world will have to take that assurance at face value—or not.