recommended reading

Pentagon to adversaries: An attack on U.S. networks might unleash military force

A new Defense Department policy that reportedly authorizes troops to use physical force in response to a cyberattack does not represent a change in posture, but rather a signal to adversaries that the United States will not hesitate to act, said a former U.S. military and intelligence official who managed network security.

According to an article in Monday's Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon penned a departmental policy that for the first time unequivocally states that a grave attack on U.S. networks will be treated as an act of war. In other words, a cyberattack severe enough to cause death and destruction can trigger the use of military force.

"I don't think the statement is a giant step forward in terms of new policy," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Dale W. Meyerrose, former chief information officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "It's an explicit statement, which underpins the military being serious about cyberspace and its relationship to the other domains of land, sea and air."

The policy, expected to be publicly released within the next month, arrives at a time when the notion of cyberwar increasingly is becoming a real-world problem. During the past year, sophisticated intrusions such as the Stuxnet virus, which targets industrial equipment such as nuclear reactors, and so-called advanced persistent threats, worms that invade silently for extensive periods to steal intelligence, have fueled national security concerns.

This weekend, Defense and Homeland Security Department officials confirmed the government is investigating a network penetration at Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.

While the Pentagon's policy may seem like a statement of the obvious, "it does put potential folks who want to do mischief with national security apparatus on notice," said Meyerrose, who also served as CIO at several Defense and Air Force commands.

Few nations have enough cyber-savvy to cripple U.S. critical infrastructure, such as power grids, but as soon as terrorist groups or enemy states attain that capability, they will not hesitate to use it, James A. Lewis, a cybersecurity researcher at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies, testified before Congress just last week.

The more imminent possibility is that adversaries will disrupt military communications, said Meyerrose, now a senior executive at information technology firm Harris Corp. Under the new Pentagon edict, "the retribution [for that] could be -- we'll take out your ability to transmit, or it could involve killing," he said. "When we report on the elements of cyber, we tend to boil it down to a user on a keyboard. It's not quite that simple. It could be an attack on a military place where computer systems are assembled."

In mid-May, while unveiling a new White House policy framework on international cybersecurity with other Cabinet officials, Defense Department Deputy Secretary William J. Lynn III alluded to "a forthcoming strategy for operating in cyberspace."

The White House document asserts that the United States has the right to use military force to defend itself against cyber threats.

"All states possess an inherent right to self-defense, and we recognize that certain hostile acts conducted through cyberspace could compel actions under the commitments we have with our military treaty partners," the strategy states. "We reserve the right to use all necessary means -- diplomatic, informational, military and economic -- as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our nation, our allies, our partners and our interests."

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov