Commentary: Defense cyber strategy avoids tackling the most critical issues

Summer in Washington is not usually the time when major news breaks. This year is proving the exception as lawmakers and the White House struggle with the debt ceiling. Amid this economic activity, the Defense Department on July 14 issued its Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace. Given the volume and nature of nefarious cyber activity seen recently, a bold and innovative plan could have been expected. Those hoping for such would have been disappointed, however, at least by the unclassified version of the document made publicly available. With so much at stake, either in the cyber domain or dependent on it, a clear-eyed assessment of the strategy -- its strengths, weaknesses and gaps -- is in order. Indeed, the future shape of both conflict and warfare likely will include a cyber component.

In the last five years alone, there have been more than six dozen significant cyber incidents, according to a running compilation by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Targets have included Defense, the State and Commerce departments, and major defense contractors. Classified defense networks have been hacked. The asymmetry is striking: consider unmanned aerial vehicle operations in Iraq breached by insurgents on laptops with cheap file-sharing software. Online crime and fraud have generated millions, if not billions, of dollars in ill-gotten gains. Worse yet, the most sophisticated actors and incidents go undetected, as foreign intelligence services engage in cyber espionage, often combining technical and human intelligence in their exploits. With everything from critical infrastructure to intellectual property potentially at risk, the need for a correspondingly robust yet sophisticated counterposture is clear. So what did the Defense Department deliver?

The department's strategy is predicated upon five strategic initiatives. The first identifies cyberspace as "an operational domain" like any other (land, sea, air, space) with concomitant consequences for organizing, training and equipping. The second calls for the use of new "operating concepts" to protect Defense networks and systems. The third specifies a "whole-of-government" approach to cybersecurity based on partnerships both within government and with the private sector. The fourth cites relationship-building with international allies and partners to increase "collective cybersecurity." The fifth signals intent to leverage American "ingenuity" through its cyber workforce and fast-paced technological innovation.

All five planks are logical and laudable in principle. But none of them are new or novel. To the contrary, many of these elements have been discussed as desiderata for years. That the strategic conversation and planning environment should still be so stunted is disappointing if not also disturbing. Criticism based on missing pieces of the strategy also has come from within, notably from Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Speaking to reporters just before the official release of the document, Cartwright lamented the defensive character of the plan, which highlights the use of sensors and other means to support "active defenses" intended to detect and disrupt cyberattacks: "If . . . I'm not going to do anything other than improve my defenses every time you attack me, it's difficult to stop that cycle." He then suggested a recalibration of Pentagon cybersecurity efforts so that half (rather than 10 percent, as at present) would be dedicated to offense.

The omission of cyber weapons from the strategy, in terms of a treatment of their development and use, is the unacknowledged gorilla in the room. Ignoring this challenging area of doctrine and policy will not make it go away. Heated debates about these issues continue to rage among analysts and commentators. To be fair, the difficulties associated with deterrence and retaliation in this context are substantial. For starters, the threat spectrum is wide and varied and includes other countries, nonstate actors, terrorists, organized crime syndicates, corporate insiders and teenage hackers. Actors without addresses can attack in relative anonymity, and smoking keyboards are hard to find. Cartwright himself has referenced legal issues that complicate and slow progress on the development of offensive strategy, such as delineation of jurisdiction between Defense and domestic agencies. Congressional patience is wearing thin, however. Just the other day, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, requesting answers to a series of questions about U.S. policy on cyberwarfare and associated legal matters. The letter emphasized the urgency of resolving significant issues, such as "the relationship between military operations in cyberspace and kinetic operations," and "the definition of what would constitute an act of war in cyberspace." Details aside, the importance of maintaining a U.S. edge in cyberspace, on offense as well as defense, should be a conceptual given.

As officials continue to work their way through all these complexities, including attribution, one powerful dimension of the nation's deterrent may be the ability to quickly reconstitute damaged systems, regardless of the perpetrator. For now, though, strategic ambiguity remains: the United States will respond to grave attack (cyberspace being a "domain" akin to the others), but the instruments it would invoke are unspecified. Ambiguity may in fact be advantageous, permitting consideration of a range of response options and tools -- as long as there are markers in the sand concerning perpetrators, intentions and circumstances. Moving forward, other important open questions include the place and parameters, if any, of information operations in the form of "digital disinformation" that could be invoked to influence outcomes and behavior.

While bits and bytes may never completely replace bullets and bombs, cyber tools can serve either as a force multiplier or as a separate channel of attack. Until policy and doctrine here catch up with technology and people, our cyber posture will remain more reactive and ad hoc, and therefore potentially less effective, than it should or could be. Some have even argued that it is too late for redress, and that we should instead start anew by building "a more hardened enterprise structure for some activities." Regardless of one's view on that matter, it highlights the overlap between critical services and national defense. As the strategy makes clear, Defense will help protect privately held critical infrastructure that supports military functions.

The more charitable evaluations of the strategy conclude it is "a reasonable first step." Let's hope the optimists are rewarded with additional action in the weeks and months ahead, in the form of further planning and strategy that tackles the hard issues currently left unaddressed. Unless and until that happens, bits may come back to bite us.

Frank J. Cilluffo is director of The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute. Sharon L. Cardash is associate director of HSPI.