In an earlier commentary, this author drew attention to the importance of offence as much as defence in the cyber domain. Cyber offence and defence apply equally in the context of conventional military operations. More importantly, in this article, the author seeks to expose the limits of pursuing a cyber strategy based on the “cult of the defensive” in the context of conventional military operations. There are specific areas where offensive action through cyber means will impact conventional military operations. The quest to maintain battlefield supremacy means militaries around the world will invest heavily and increasingly do so to gain offensive cyber warfare capabilities. Consider the role of cyber attacks against Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS). Ground-based Air Defence Systems (GBADS) are also vulnerable to cyber attacks. All IADs and GBADS systems, including Indian ones, are connected to computers. They are most likely reliant on standard issue radios, satellite communications, and civilian or dual use telecommunications. All these means of communication are susceptible and vulnerable to hostile cyber penetration.
Cyber attacks can be divided into two types: Attacks that disrupt the effective operation of a weapons system and another set that destroy or inflict significant damage against weapons systems. As a consequence, penetration of communication and Command and Control (C&C) networks using malware can disrupt the effective operation of the IADS and GBADS. The attack could be executed in the form a Radio Frequency (RF), which is primarily an electronic action merging cyber and electronic warfare operations. Malware could be inserted into the computer networks and C&C systems of the IADS and GBADs.
Cyber attacks can be divided into two types: Attacks that disrupt the effective operation of a weapons system and another set that destroy or inflict significant damage against weapons systems. As a consequence, penetration of communication and Command and Control (C&C) networks using malware can disrupt the effective operation of the IADS and GBADS.
Beyond IADS and GBADS, the cyber attacks in a quest to Suppress Enemy Air Defence (SEAD). Indeed, the United States Air Force (USAF)’ EC-130 Compass Call electronic attack plane has merged the capability of delivering both electronic and cyber attacks. EC-130 is an airborne platform that represents the intersection between what the American military calls Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA). The EC-130 is capable of delivering electronic and cyber attacks. The USAF also operates RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft that are capable of geolocating signals and passing on reconnaissance intelligence for the execution of a cyber attack. The purpose of the EC-130 is to use the intelligence supplied by the RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint aircraft to deliver attack. The Compass Call system exploits the overlapping conditions created by the fusion between electronic and cyber domains. As United States (US) Congressional Research Service (CRS) report explained: “The EC-130H Compass Call is normally used to jam enemy radars and communications. However, in recent years it has been used to transmit computer code
In addition, the Israelis for their part, in September 2007, carried out a cyber attack using fighter aircraft that were given coordinates against the Syrian IADS at Al-kibar. Although a considerable amount of information about the Israeli attack is shrouded in secrecy, nevertheless, there is a general consensus amongst cyber experts that the Israelis actually completed a successful cyber attack from an airborne platform. The Israeli cyber attack provided misleading or false information regarding radar tracks of approaching Israeli aircraft and was performed in parallel with an Israeli electronic and kinetic attack. India is yet to develop and acquire, or at least there is no publicly available evidence to suggest or indicate airborne capabilities for the delivery of cyber attacks.
There are also ground based systems or vehicle mounted capabilities that combines Electronic Warfare (EW) and Cyber Warfare (CW). For instance, the British Army’s Land Seeker acquisition is geared to combining EW and CW capabilities into an armoured vehicle such as potentially the British Army’s Boxer armoured vehicle or the US Army’s TLS armoured vehicle. CEMA is integral to American and British efforts to maintain supremacy during the course of military operations in the electromagnetic and cyber domains.
The British Army’s Land Seeker acquisition is geared to combining EW and CW capabilities into an armoured vehicle such as potentially the British Army’s Boxer armoured vehicle or the US Army’s TLS armoured vehicle. CEMA is integral to American and British efforts to maintain supremacy during the course of military operations in the electromagnetic and cyber domains
Thus, more fundamentally at the tactical level, the offensive thrust of an attack is likely to be greater than purely defensive measures. If anything, militaries across the world prize and place a premium on initiative and offensive élan; it would be highly debatable and unlikely if the armed services of any major power including India could or would forsake offensive cyber action and pursue, at the operational and tactical level of war, a course predicated on a “cult of the defensive”. Since at the tactical level of war where operations are underway in different domains, events unfold rapidly and are dynamic, generating an imperative and pressure for offensive cyber action. In all probability, the pressure will be great to pursue offensive cyber action also because of the need to execute an attack with speed and stealth or secrecy, which are the constituent elements of surprise. If surprise is to be achieved as the philosopher of war, Carl Von Clausewitz, would maintain, it is most likely to be successful at the tactical level, as there is a significant conflation between time and space. Surprise is also most decisive at the tactical level, both offensively and defensively. Since the cyber domain lends itself to offensive action, the desire on the part of militaries to resort to surprise cyber attacks and offensive cyber action during the course of military operations and preemptively, particularly when it is paired with EW, is likely to be strong rather than be bound by a rigid and inflexible “cult of the defensive”. If India were to lock or bind itself to an uncompromising and stubborn defensive CW posture, it is likely to do great harm to the combat performance of the Indian armed services and will condemn and consign the country to the status of a third-rate cyber power.
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Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...Read More +