The drills are expected to run uniformed service members, civilians and contractors through the motions of staving off a cyber assault.
It's 2020 and Russian forces are seizing the Arctic, partly by hacking the FedEx networks that handle shipping orders for U.S. troops.
Not a far cry from reality, if one’s been following Defense Department warnings that cyberspace will be a part of any future war.
And apparently, some U.S. lawmakers want to project more power in the newest military domain.
In an unprecedented move, Congress just ordered U.S. Cyber Command to carry out simulated "war games" against, specifically, Russia, along with China, Iran and North Korea. The drills are expected to run uniformed service members, civilians and contractors through the motions of staving off a cyber assault the likes of which each nation state will be equipped for -- five to 10 years from now.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff will "conduct a series of war games" to gauge the "strategy, assumptions, and capabilities of the United States Cyber Command to prevent large-scale cyberattacks, by foreign powers with cyberattack capabilities comparable to the capabilities that China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are expected to achieve in the years 2020 and 2025, from reaching United States targets," lawmakers wrote in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
The bill is awaiting the signature of President Barack Obama, after clearing Congress on Tuesday.
For decades in the Nevada desert, the military has run combat rehearsals with kinetic weapons such as jets and tanks, while Cyber Command, since coming to fruition in 2010, has simultaneously engaged in similar practice sessions.
But this is the first time Congress has identified which foreign cyber adversaries the Pentagon must consider an imminent threat to the livelihood of U.S. citizens.
The results of the war games must be delivered to lawmakers by fall 2016.
War games typically refer to large-scale exercises, such as “Cyber Flag,” which is the information security portion of the yearly "Red Flag" training session, held at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, said Rob Bagnall, founder of contractor Maverick Cyber Defense, which supports the intelligence community's annual cyber exercises.
"You are talking hundreds of participants from many places," he said. Cyber Flag, for instance, teams all branches, CYBERCOM and other government entities in multiple locations.
A Technothriller Could Signal China's Ambitions
Over the past year, following several high-profile, suspected government-backed hacks, U.S. national security leaders have stopped mincing words about aggressors, publicly naming the countries allegedly responsible.
In June, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called China the “leading suspect” in the theft of Office of Personnel Management background investigation records on 21.5 million individuals.
Earlier, Obama said the North Korean government “cyber vandalized” Sony about a year ago, by leaking the entertainment conglomerate's intellectual property and personnel records, in addition to destroying computer equipment.
As for Russia, Clapper testified in a Sept. 10 House Intelligence Committee hearing the country is establishing its own cyber command to maneuver offensively in the domain, partly by "inserting malware into enemy command and control systems.” He added, “Russian cyber actors are developing means to remotely access industrial control systems used to manage critical infrastructures,” which are systems like power grids and transportation lines.
Earlier this year, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Clapper confirmed the Iranian government was responsible for a widely reported, destructive hack against Sands Las Vegas in 2014.
Some policy influencers say wartime attacks by these four entities would put the Sony hack to shame.
"If there was a war with states like a China, Russia, Iran or North Korea, we’d learn 'cyber war' is far more than stealing Social Security numbers or email from gossipy Hollywood executives as too often it is used to describe, but the takedown of the modern military nervous system and Stuxnet-style digital weapons," Peter Singer, strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation think tank, told Nextgov.
The Stuxnet virus, an alleged U.S.-Israel project, hijacked machinery powering Iran's nuclear program.
"Worrisome for the U.S. is that last year the Pentagon’s weapons tester found every single major weapons program had significant vulnerabilities to cyberattack," Singer added.
The defense bill also directs Defense to scan every weapons system for hacker entryways by 2019.
This year’s “Ghost Fleet: A Novel Of the Next World War,” co-authored by Singer and August Cole, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, lays out where China is headed, he said.
For example, it's plausible that, in 2020 or 2025, China could not only compromise U.S. weapons via software attacks, but also by the hardware itself, Singer said. By manipulating the supply of standard Chinese-made microchips, including those that power various US weapons systems like the F-35, Beijing could sabotage aircraft, he said.