Channeling the 'offensive mind-set' in cybersecurity

Some say defense of critical networks should be grounded in the rules of war.

To protect critical networks and national security, the House and Senate are weighing cyber defense legislation and the Obama administration is considering regulations requiring information sharing between government agencies and private businesses. But who should be in charge -- even inside the Pentagon -- remains a big question in all this dithering.

The answer depends on how you look at cybersecurity: in terms of offense or defense, military or law enforcement. Also, how do you look at cyber strategically, tactically and operationally in the Pentagon, at the Homeland Security Department, FBI, Federal Reserve, and in the civilian realm at places like JP Morgan Chase, Dominion Power and Washington Gas?

“You have to have an offensive mind-set to better focus on defense,” retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright said during a recent appearance at the U.S. Naval Institute. “DoD is in the business of offense. [Yet] we’re still trying to protect everyone’s computer.”

Cartwright said when he was vice commander at U.S. Strategic Command in 2004,  the emphasis was on cyber, electromagnetic pulse and directed energy weapons rather than creating a unified cyber command, which was established in 2010. The thinking was clear enough. These weapons expanded the tools available to the president if diplomacy failed.

The Defense Department’s use of these weapons constituted the “away game,” not the “home game,” in which law enforcement and other government agencies, as well as businesses, protected themselves against hackers.

But who should govern the use of cyber weapons?  

In a recent speech to the Business Executives for National Security in New York, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said using cyber capabilities offensively must be grounded in the laws of war. The department, he added, is bolstering its defenses, working on new capabilities and “acting aggressively to get ahead of the problem” with foreign actors such as China, Russia and Iran.

“Everybody sees cyber as the Internet . . . about who is stealing intellectual capital, of denying your Web page, or whatever it is,” said Cartwright, who holds the Harold Brown chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While this was not the focus of Strategic Command, he added, “it may be where we end up going.”

Cybersecurity is a tough sell for the military services and the defense industry. Cartwright pointed out that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example, has no defense against cyberattack.  “Any aperture [taking in information] is a potential target,” he said, not just civilian infrastructure, and strike fighters have plenty of apertures.

Lt. Gen. Rhett Hernandez, the first to head the Army’s Cyberspace Command, has been preaching cyber gospel to operational commanders ever since his organization was stood up two years ago.  His mantra: “Think in a two-domain sense -- land and cyber.” Commanders don’t reflexively use that approach in planning their next mission.

One operational leader who has bought into the Army’s cyber gospel is Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, who just relinquished command of III Corps at Fort Hood, Texas. He insists it is a commander’s job to understand cyber capabilities on the battlefield.  “You can’t throw it to the staff,” he said at the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting in October, explaining how he employed cyber defenses during a major training exercise this year focusing on the oil rich Caspian Sea region of Central Asia. 

During the exercise, Campbell said, “our ability to see ourselves” was critical as the battle changed quickly and the opposing force attempted to disrupt command, control and communications networks. “The network is a weapons system,” he added.

Campbell also employed social media to explain to civilians in the area what the allies were doing, although he admitted “it was hard to measure” the effect.

Campbell said in his new position as leader of U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, Germany he will insist commanders participate in cyber training scenarios at Hohenfels Training Area and Graefenwhoer in Bavaria as they now do at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

But in the switch from active defense to offense in cyber space, another big question for service leaders is: How do we know we are successful? And not all agree on what’s the right approach.

“It really comes down to what are those reactions that make sense that we can do defensively -- analogous to the missile shoot-down,” Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring. But the rules of engagement for cyber warfare haven’t been updated since 2005.

“If you are to go after a computer in foreign space or some other thing . . . that would now take, I think, the president and the [Defense] secretary to step in and start making decisions, versus us taking that on,” Alexander added. “And I think that’s probably where we’ll end up, and that makes a lot of sense from my perspective.”

On the battlefield, the question of who should make those decisions is not so easily answered. There, it’s often the soldier getting shot at who knows best when to fire back.

John Grady, retired director of communications for the Association of the United States Army, writes about defense and national security.