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Cyberwarfare: the coming battles

A View From the Edge

In the next three weeks, this column will take you on a tour of the newest form of warfare. Cyberwarfare: the bloody battles already being fought, the mind-shredding complexities, the threats even minor enemies can impose, the plans to defend our nation and allies and, never least, what the youth of the country need to gear up for.

So, let’s start with a simple question: How serious is this new form of warfare?

There is a vast hydroelectric plant at Shushenskaya in Siberia.1 Size? About twice the size of the Hoover dam. Inside the turbine room, where thousands of tons of water speed through huge dynamos generating electricity, there are 10 turbines producing electricity.

An accident occurred. Well, it was initially called an accident to allow the Russian equivalent of the FBI to try and find the cyber attacker.

What the computer hacker did was to allow the full pressure of water to overspeed an out-of-service turbine and then reversed the electricity. The strain on the wildly spinning rotor proved too much and it exploded “like a water hammer,” destroying the dam’s generator room and killing 74 people. Oh, and 40 tons of transformer oil were spilled into the Yenisei River, killing 25 percent of the trout fisheries, about 400 tons of fish (so far).

Three simple commands from a hacker sitting far away destroyed 12 percent of Russia’s conventional electric supply, killed skilled workers and caused massive environmental and financial damage.

How bad was this attack compared to other events? The monetary effect on Russia’s economy was similar to the Japanese nuclear reactor meltdown. In other words, devastating.

So far, no one is sure who caused the attack. A European cybersecurity expert examined the code used in the attack and says the worm was written by a large team with varying levels of expertise. The expert pointed out there were people on that team who were computer code experts as well as people who understood the functioning of centrifuges (turbines).

A similar cyberattack was launched by Israel against Iran’s nuclear materials processing plant last year that was heralded as the “most effective weapon employed by Israel to date” (against threats to the country).

What is worrying is that the levels of expertise needed to launch such attacks are readily available, even in small countries, criminal organizations or dissident groups. There are the Hong Kong Blonds who call themselves cybersamurai, or organized criminal groups conducting cybertheft, and shadowy teams of anarchists within China and Russia the CIA has called cybermilitias.

To quote a leading military journal here, “Massive damage can be inflicted on the U.S. through the cybersphere — and there is no way to stop it.”2

And the Shushenskaya plant “accident?” Turns out it revealed another angle to worry about: cyberfratricide. A plant worker accidentally — or in anger — sent the errant code from home. European experts are skeptical. But the ability to turn that kind of mistake into a weapon has the Pentagon quaking in fear (and at the same time using the same means as a weapon).

The Israelis did exactly that when, in 2007, they shut down Syria’s airspace and air defense to bomb a North Korean-designed nuclear lab there.

The problem facing U.S. cyber warriors and planners is this: U.S. laws do not permit pre-emptive strikes against possible enemies, and sometimes you only have fractions of a second to stop such attacks by employing deadly pre-emptive measures.

Next week, we’ll look at what our nation is doing to ensure your safety. And what they wish they could do.

Peter Riva, formerly of Amenia Union, lives in New Mexico.

Resources:

1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmOOZJ7mdqY or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luSgoEjw7CM and http://www.bigpicture.in/the-sayano-shushenskaya-dam-accident/

2. AvWeek, May 23, 2011, “Digital Deluge”