May 17, 2013
Cyberattack central to debate over war
The Pentagon has cyberattack capabilities that allow the U.S. military to help blind Syrian air defenses without firing a shot, according to military analysts.
“One of the reasons the Air Force has paid so much attention to cyberwarfare is … for beating enemy air defenses,” said James Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. abilities to defeat Syria’s air defenses are central to a debate over whether to intervene in the 2-year-old civil war. Electronic methods to disable enemy air defense systems include the injection of malware, a form of computer software, into the air-defense network through a computer attack or by electronic warfare aircraft capable of jamming radar.
The radars act like wireless transmitters, and jammers can send false or destructive information into the radar, which then gets into the network, said Shlomo Narkolayev, an analyst who has worked on cyber issues for the Israeli military’s cyberwarfare unit. “It sounds like science fiction. It’s not,” Narkolayev said. “It’s not hard to do this,” he said.
Syria and other nations are constantly adjusting the electronics for their air systems, and Air Force documents show the U.S. military does the same with its cyberweapons. They are constantly updated to counter changes made by enemy militaries.
A 2007 Israeli attack on a suspected Syrian nuclear power plant in 2007 provided a template for a future attack. The Israelis used a cyberattack to disable Syrian air defenses before aircraft entered Syrian airspace.
The Israeli attack was a quick strike that only required temporarily blinding air defenses. Establishing a no-fly zone would require taking down Syrian air defenses for months.
Cyberattacks can cause permanent damage, Lewis said. U.S. forces have been reluctant to use cyberattacks for fear malware could damage other networks and because of concerns that enemy nations will copy the malware once it is released.
Syrians could take the system offline to avoid an infection spreading, but then the system would be less effective, Lewis said. The Pentagon has said any air campaign would be a challenge because of the size and sophistication of Syrian air defenses, which are far more extensive than in Libya, where the United States and NATO created a no-fly zone in 2011.
While cyberwarfare provides advantages, it is not without risk and can’t replace more conventional tactics, said Jeffrey Carr, founder of Taia Global, a cybersecurity consultancy. “Cyber is not a magic bullet,” he said.