Due to popular demand, Beyond Deadlines is reposting every Monday the still relevant articles of retired Armed Forces of the Philippines intelligence chief Brig. General Victor Corpus that appeared in his BD’s column, Views from the East.
Dec. 14, 2016
THE United States is the most advanced country in the world in the field of information technology (IT). Practically all of its industries, telecommunication systems, key government services and defense establishments rely heavily on computers and computer networks.
But this heavy dependence on computers is a double-edged sword. Advanced IT has thrust the U.S. economy and defense establishment ahead of all other countries, but this strength has also created an Achilles’ heel that can potentially bring the superpower to its knees with a few keystrokes on a dozen or so laptops.
China’s new concept of “people’s war” incorporates cyber warriors from its more than two million-strong military force together with its citizenry of some 1.3 billion people. Select Chinese civilian and military personnel who are naturally talented in computers become part of trained regiments for information warfare. If we add the hackers and information warriors from Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and several other countries sympathetic to China, a cyber attack on the U.S. would indeed be formidable.
In April 30, 2001, BBC News gave us a preview of what may lie ahead when Chinese hackers launched a cyber attack against U.S. institutions after that U.S. spy plane incident where a Chinese pilot was killed:
Media reports say sites run by the US labor and health departments have already been broken into and altered. It is reported that in each case tributes to the Chinese pilot killed in the spy plane collision have appeared. That incident greatly increased political tensions between the US and China, but there is no evidence linking the government in Beijing to the hacker offensive.
A report in a Chinese newspaper claims that a week-long campaign is planned by a group of Chinese computer enthusiasts, known as the Honkers Union of China, starting from Monday. The newspaper report says the group is led by a leader known as “lion”. It was set up within the last two years.
In an article from the Washington Post, the U.S. Commerce Department was the target of a Chinese cyber attack:
Hackers operating through Chinese Internet servers have launched a debilitating attack on the computer system of a sensitive Commerce Department bureau, forcing it to replace hundreds of workstations and block employees from regular use of the Internet for more than a month, Commerce officials said yesterday.
In July, the State Department confirmed that hackers in China had broken into its computers in Washington and overseas. Last year, U.S. officials reported that the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies were under relentless attack from unidentified computers in China.
So, if a major conflict erupts between China and America, expect a swarm of cyber warriors hacking at America’s civilian (business), government and military establishments. America’s command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) will be the prime target.
The U.S. ballistic missile system, the anti-ballistic missile system, and the air defense system would be priority targets as well. (Just imagine U.S. ICBMs reprogrammed by hackers to explode a few seconds upon launch!) Neutralization of these systems through cyber attacks would decapitate the entire U.S. defense and deliver a fatal blow to its center of gravity, such as, the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) computers.
A major, all-out cyber attack, however, will not be limited to attacks on strategic military offensive and defensive systems alone. The U.S. banking system will surely come under attack. Serious attempts will be made to disrupt the stock market as well. Other vital services will be equally vulnerable. The air traffic control system can be disrupted or manipulated to cause air traffic collisions. The train traffic control system can be manipulated in the same manner to cause train “accidents.”
Pressure in oil and gas pipelines can be overloaded to cause major pipeline disasters. Dams can be made to burst, telecommunication systems to fail, faucets to run dry, power plant generators and power grids to malfunction, and nuclear power plants to experience catastrophic meltdowns.
All of these potential effects of cyber warfare can engulf the U.S. mainland in a well-planned cyber attack or counterattack in the event of a major confrontation between America and major powers like China or Russia. More ominous, there is no fool-proof method of defending against this type of attack.
A case in point is the “storm worm” that had affected millions of computers worldwide. Its source code is constantly updated by its authors, which allows it to morph and adapt, giving it the ability to defeat anti-virus software thrown against it. It can lie dormant, enabling it to evade anti-virus programs searching for it, and be activated at a moment’s notice. And it allows the hacker who created and released the “worm” to control all infected computers. Computer security experts suspect that Russian hackers created and released the “storm worm” into the World Wide Web.
The War Memorial Incident in Estonia graphically illustrates the use of information warfare by Russia against an adversary.
Estonia forcibly transferred a Soviet-era World War II memorial statue to a new location. This action by the Estonian government inflamed Russian nationalistic passion. Russian response was immediate and devastating. Russian cyber warriors launched a massive distributed denial of service botnet attack against Estonia’s national information infrastructure.
As reported in the Guardian of U.K. on May 17, 2007 this undeclared cyber war by Russia paralyzed NATO-member Estonia’s websites of government ministries, political parties, newspapers, banks and private companies.
A more ominous application of this new form of warfare debilitated Georgia during the 5-day war on August 2008. Russia combined a physical military attack with information warfare against Georgia when U.S. trained and equipped Georgian troops attacked South Ossetia. The result was a humiliating rout of the invading Georgian forces. This marked the first recorded instance of a cyber attack coordinated with a conventional attack by one nation against another.
A slight modification of this tactic is to launch an electromagnetic pulse attack blanketing the entire U.S. continent followed by a concerted cyber attack on select computer systems that survive the initial attack. Such an electro-information attack can literally throw American society back a hundred years. America, as a whole, has not adequately prepared for this kind of concerted electro-information attack. Such an attack on this “Dim Mak” point can render the superpower powerless, with a minimum of effort and resources.
* The opinion of this author is his/hers alone. It is not necessarily the views of Beyond Deadlines.