Electronic Warfare: Battles Without Bloodshed
Why not attack computers and infrastructure instead of human beings, one expert asks. This article presents us a future scenario of cyberwar in which a “rogue country” is defeated. It also analyzes the major impediments to the use of electronic warfare.
The neutron bomb is one of the most horrid weapons ever devised: It doesn't damage property; it only kills higher life-forms. Wouldn't the opposite be wonderful, a device like the robot's ray in The Day the Earth Stood Still(地球停转之日), which melts down weapons but not soldiers?
Electronic or "cyber" warfare--hacking into an enemy's computers, jamming radio transmissions, and the like--holds that promise. It can destroy an army's--or even a whole nation's--ability to function, but does not hurt human life.
The United States has very good electronic warfare capabilities, but has used them only to support conventional military operations. The technology is reaching the point, however, where cyber warfare may be decisive in its own right. Before we imagine what such a "cyberwar" scenario might be like, let's briefly look at how electronic warfare developed.
Electronic Warfare Has Grown
During the Civil War, operations conducted by the Union army against the Confederate telegraph system foretold modern twentieth-century electronic warfare. Union operatives penetrated Confederate lines to tap into and read military traffic on the Confederate telegraph system. Not only did these operations yield valuable intelligence information, but some operators even began sending bogus messages to sow confusion in the Confederate ranks.
Just before World War I, radio communication seemed like a real boon to naval operations because it allowed ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, especially in bad weather. Before this time, flags or light blinkers with limited range provided the only means of communication between ships.
Naval ship captains, however, were aware that a sophisticated set of shore-based equipment could locate ships by their radio transmission. By listening to the transmissions, the enemy could ascertain the number and type of ships even if they could not decode actual messages. For this reason, the U.S. Navy was particularly resistant to using radio. However, U.S. military observers aboard British warships soon saw that the tactical advantages of radio outweighed the intelligence losses.
Electronic warfare grew rapidly in World War II with the advent of radar. Monitoring radar frequencies allowed spoofing or jamming of enemy radar and led to major units and equipment devoted solely to countermeasures and counter- countermeasures. Gathering intelligence from radio transmissions also increased greatly.
Today, every modern nation has the capability to monitor, jam, or otherwise interfere with an adversary's radio communications. Most nations have also developed jam-resistant communications and intelligence-gathering equipment. The contest between intelligence-gathering forces and communications-jamming equipment is still with us today.
The use of computers on the modern battlefield has increased enormously. Digital data, no longer restricted to headquarters, flows to even the lowest ranks. The individual foot soldier carries a computer and exchanges sensor and operational data with peers and superiors via radio links. Cyber attack against systems networked with actual cable, particularly fiber-optic cable, requires a direct connection; making that connection entails special forces or covert agents. Radio links may be attacked from a distance, however. While sophisticated coding schemes and spread-spectrum systems reduce vulnerability to hacking, such radio systems are extremely expensive, and many lower-level forces may not be equipped with them. As a result they remain extremely
vulnerable to a sophisticated antagonist.
In highly centralized military operations, communications and data management have become essential tools linking individual small units and the central command structure. Cyber warfare interferes with such links. In fact, sophisticated cyberwar operations are approaching the capability of decisive offensive weapons.
Thwarting Invasion: A Future Scenario
To see how a cyberwar scenario might play out, let us imagine that a small country ruled by a despotic government is threatening an ally of the United States. This ally suspects that the rogue country is planning an attack, and asks the United States for help. U.S. intelligence determines a D-day for the attack in about a month's time.
During that month, increased electronic intelligence, directed against both the military and the civil infrastructure of the rogue country, provides an intelligence bonanza. Although the rogue country detects incursions of its computer assets, it cannot be sure what has been uncovered. More importantly, it cannot detect certain other offensive cyber actions.
The evening before the invasion, detonations occur at many sites within the rogue country. No significant damage is noted immediately, however, and the military suspects these are just harassment attacks. However, as H-hour approaches, the rogue army finds that many of its vehicles will not start. Engine control computers have been fried by electromagnetic pulse weapons. Many radio sets, particularly those of critical tactical communications centers, will not operate--their antennas have been coated with graphite fibers from carbon warheads. It will take almost two days to clean all these systems.
Another serious problem is that petroleum tankers attempting to fill up at rear logistics centers find the oil storage tanks empty when they should be full. It turns out that bogus orders have caused oil reserves to be shipped to military locations far from the impending incursion.
Sensors on weapons (night vision, radar, and such) are inoperative on at least a third of the ground and air forces. The radio systems that do operate are flooded with loud, irritating music. Attempts to repair damaged sensors reveal that stocks of spare parts at forward depots, supposedly in inventory, are nowhere to be found.
Tactical commanders order checks and tests of their computer and communications equipment and find they are unreliable at best. The ability to coordinate the movements of the invasion force is
problematic. The reconnaissance forces are blind. Ammunition and fuel stocks to maintain the offensive are only a fraction of what commanders had counted on.
Government accountants find that they cannot issue payroll checks-- insufficient funds. Even the dictator 's Swiss bank accounts have been zeroed out. Bureaucrats necessary for support of the army find employment termination notices in their mail. Train signals throughout the country refuse to operate, or operate in such a way as to create chaos in rail transport. Supplies needed to support the invasion in the days ahead fail to reach the front.
The national television system begins to show programming obviously not from the government. Damaging information is broadcast, such as the account transaction records of the dictator's out-of-country secret bank accounts. Fictitious data implying that the government is bankrupt also appears.
All-in-all, these activities cause the invasion first to be postponed, then called off. The government is fighting for control.
While this scenario is fictitious, it is not beyond current cyberwar technology.
Warfare Will Change
In the past, new forms of warfare have changed the rules of war and achieved victories with fewer casualties. Army doctrine has traditionally stressed that the only real way to win a war is to occupy the homeland of your opponent, but naval strategists have shown that the mere threat of naval operations has settled disputes in favor of the nation with superior naval forces. Pax Britannica did not require the British Empire to occupy nations that were a threat to British interests.
Some analysts have argued that air power reached a similarly decisive capability at the end of World War I. Analysts still debate how important air power was in World War II. It certainly wasn't a decisive weapon in Korea or Vietnam. It appears, however, that air power did achieve such a decisive nature in the Gulf War against Iraq and in NATO's operations against Serbia. If cyber warfare can achieve the importance of naval and air power, it could lead to bloodless conflicts in the future.
Fears and Ethical Questions
One impediment to the use of electronic warfare is the fear that, "if we use it, it could be used against us." Such fear has held back military technologies in the past. The best answer is to develop countermeasures against electronic warfare before employing it. The U.S. military is fully aware of cyber threats and has been hardening its own computers and communications technologies against them for years. The U.S. armed forces are probably the most capable in the world at resisting cyber attacks.
Another major impediment are the ethical questions, "Is it right to take such actions against a sovereign state? Is cyber warfare truly less ethical than bombs?" Yes, civilians will suffer economic losses. But the cleanest bombing campaign with super-expensive smart weapons cannot prevent collateral damage. Surely hurting the civilian's pocketbook is more ethical than bombing him.
A third problem is economic. Major international corporations own extensive facilities in many small countries around the world. Cyber warfare may damage their assets. The resistance of these multinational companies to cyber warfare should not be underestimated.
But bloodless cyberwar scenarios are possible in the future. The U.S. government fears electronic attacks against its civil infrastructure, as evidenced by its Critical Infrastructure Protection program. It has developed good defenses. It should also have the confidence and the will to use offensive cyber warfare as an ethical, nonlethal alternative to bombs and bullets. Don Stauffer recently retired after 40 years of working in aerospace and defense research and development with McDonnell Douglas and Honeywell. During this time he spent a number of years specifically working in areas of electronic warfare and laser weaponry. He now writes about aerospace and other technology.
Y2K Drills Are Models for Cyherwar Preparation
Most emergency response agencies and municipal governments that use computer networks have been preparing for the year 2000 computer bug with vulnerability assessments and worst-case scenario drills. These activities may prove useful beyond just dealing with the Y2K problem. While interference with emergency response functions is not the nonlethal warfare discussed in the body of this article, such activities may well be among the options exercised by terrorists or governments wishing to harm the United States.
The vulnerability assessments done by agencies will discover exactly how vulnerable they are to computer attacks. The drills are useful as practice responses to cyberwar attacks. In fact, rather than a one-time drill, agencies may be prudent in making such drills an ongoing activity, possibly annually.