Cyber offensive weapons pits strategic vs. tactical

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michelle Howard said cyber weapons are following a similar trajectory as nuclear weapons and for now need top command and co...

It will probably take the president’s permission for the United States military to use a cyber-offensive weapon, said Adm. Michelle Howard, the vice chief of naval operations.

Howard said cyber weapons are following a similar trajectory to the one taken by nuclear weapons during the Cold War era.

“For now if you’re a sailor it’s defensive, you defend your network, you do your patching, you look for intruders,” Howard said during a Sept. 25 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Howard’s remarks come on the heels of Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) telling the Intelligence Committee and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers that the United States needs to build a cyber deterrent with offensive capabilities.

“I think [deterrence] has got to be a high priority. Deterrence doesn’t work unless people know about it …. The cyber war has started,” King said during a Sept. 24 hearing. “We are in the cyber war with our hands tied behind our back. We would never build a destroyer without guns …you cannot defend, defend, defend, defend and never punch back.”

King is also a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Cyber-offensive and strategy

Rogers has said multiple times that the United States needs to increase its cyber offensive capabilities.

This spring the Defense Department released a cyber strategy, which offered potential avenues for cyber offense.

The strategy notably creates a cyber mission force made of 133 teams. Those teams are charged with tasks like protecting the United States against cyberattacks and defending DoD networks against threats.

However, 52 of the teams will provide support to the combatant commands in operational and contingency plans or provide combat mission support.

The strategy also created a principal cyber advisor to the Defense Secretary, which reviews military cyberspace activities, cyber mission forces and offensive/defensive cyber missions.

Howard said it will be interesting to see how cyber offensive weapons develop since they are currently handled with the highest command and control authorities.

Presidential authority over cyber is “interesting because that’s where we started off with nuclear and yet at some point we went on this journey where we said ‘Hey, this is a powerful weapon, we’ll take it all the way down to the tactical level,’” Howard said. “At some point in our history we actually had nuclear weapons in artillery in Europe, nuclear weapons on depth charges and at some point somebody goes ‘Hmm, tactical nuclear weapons may not be such a good idea,’ and we brought it all the way back up to the strategic level.”

As the United States focuses mostly on defensive cyber operations, the Navy is overhauling its cybersecurity. The Task Force Awakening was created in response to a 2014 cyberattack of the Navy’s computer system. Howard said it will be folded into multiple programs of record in the coming years.

“If there was a crisis akin to the Cuban crisis for the Navy it was [the 2013 hack],” Howard said. “So that caused us to step back and look literally tooth to tail, inception to decommission and create an enterprise approach to how we look at the cyber domain.”

Cyberwarfare and an understanding with China

As the Navy buckles down on its cybersecurity, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be investigating cyberwarfare. Three think tank analysts will testify before the committee.

“The continued and very damaging cyberattacks on American agencies demonstrate that the Administration’s current deterrents are not working. This hearing will help determine what laws and policies should be updated to address the new threat of cyber conflict,” Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in a Sept. 25 release.

The hearing  also may discuss the Sept. 25 understanding between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on cybersecurity.

“The United States and China agree that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information,” a White House fact sheet stated.

The understanding is especially salient considering many believe China hacked the Office of Personnel Management this summer, compromising the personal data of 22 million federal workers.

For too long, Chinese hackers — both governmental and criminal — have exploited American companies by stealing their hard won intellectual property and using it to further their own economic interests. This accord clarifies that so-called ‘economic espionage’ is not espionage but theft and that it has no place in 21st century dealings between states,” Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee Jim Langevin (D-R.I) said in a Sept. 25 statement about the understanding.

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