By Rebecca Grant
Air Force Association
Vol. 91, No. 1
After years of claims and counterclaims concerning the severity of
national security threats in cyberspace, the picture is at last starting
to become clear. Recent jousting within cyberspace has provided clues
about what to expect from combat in this new domain.
For example, China has been positively identified as a source of
campaign-style cyber attacks on Department of Defense systems. Russia,
moreover, is the prime suspect in last springs notorious cyber assault
Outside the military realm, too, cyber attacks are forming a persistent
threat to aerospace enterprises and other parts of the US industrial
More than ever before, cyberspace is on the minds of Americas top
leaders. Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the new head of US Strategic
Command, said during his confirmation hearing that attacks impacting our
freedom to operate in space and cyberspace pose serious strategic
Defending the nation from cyberspace attacks is STRATCOMs missionbut one
of the big challenges is assessing the strategic threat and demarcating
lines of response.
It all begins with knowing the adversary. China is at the top of most
lists of nations with advanced cyber capabilityand the will to use it.
Because of the overall tenor of military competition with China, every
report of Chinese activity raises hackles. In fact, theres been a steady
level of reported skirmishing in cyberspace this decade.
Tactic No. 1 is near-constant pressure on US government systems. The
goal of these attacks is to breach systems and leave behind malicious
code capable of redirecting network activity or enabling access to
stored datato change it or steal it. Cyber is all about protect it or
steal it,'" Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder Jr., commander of 8th Air Force and
USAFs point man on cyber issues, said last year.
Sometimes cyber attacks take place during more traditional crises. In
April 2001, the Chinese were preparing a hacker onslaught during the
tense period when a US Navy EP-3 crew was held after making an emergency
landing following a midair brush with a Chinese fighter. The FBI
cautioned network operators in government and commercial sectors to keep
up their guard.
Sure enough, in May 2001, Chinese hackers took down the White House Web
site for almost three hours with a denial-of-service strike. Since then,
the attacks originating from servers in China have grown in
sophistication and intensity.
In 2003, a barrage of attacks from China hit Pentagon systems. The
incursions were notable enough to get their own temporary code name,
In February 2007, officials at Naval Network Warfare Command
acknowledged that Chinese attacks had reached the level of a
campaign-style, force-on-force engagement, according to Federal Computer
Then, last April 26, came the first full-blown cyber assault resembling
an act of war. A controversy over moving a bronze statue of a Russian
soldier from the center of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, ended with a
massive, coordinated assault on Estonias cyber institutions. Many Web
sites, both commercial and government, were shut down for days in the
highly wired society.
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