US Cyber Capabilities Are More Potent Than They Seem

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Written by Tanner Nelson

The United States has been warned of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” for years. Earlier in 2018, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced that “the lights are blinking red.”[1] Russia’s attempts at interference in U.S. elections has already been confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community, and the theft of American intellectual property is a daily occurrence. The world is already “weaponizing the Internet,” and the United States needs to adapt or lose its edge.[2]

Some believe the United States is not prepared to defend itself against near constant cyber attacks. During a congressional hearing on America’s cyber capabilities, Jason Healey – a frequent advisor to the government – said that he doesn’t believe the United States has the same level of confidence in cyber warfare that other nations like Russia, Iran, China, or North Korea do.[3]

But the United States is anything but unprepared. In fact, there is definitive proof that the United States has the capability to attack and defend its interests in the cyber theater of war. While denied by both nations, it is widely believed that the United States and Israel introduced the Stuxnet computer worm to Iran’s nuclear reactors in a complicated and subversive attempt to destroy those reactors. Stuxnet ruined nearly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges by altering the code in the control systems and then erasing its path.[4]

The United States could be playing dumb. The Department of Defense and National Security Agency both have cyber wings capable of defense and offense.[5] The U.S. is aware of the real threats and opportunities that the cyber sphere brings. Due to the secrecy of cyber operations, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the U.S. feigns ignorance while it actually possesses the capabilities to ward off and retaliate for foreign cyber intrusions. “Cyber weapons exist in a realm not unlike the early days of the nuclear program, shrouded in secrecy, with plenty of curiosity but very little public information.”[6]

In fact, the U.S. government published its first fully-developed cyber security strategy this month.[7] While this is late to the game, it should be celebrated that the United States showed up at all. The government has announced its focus on improving the security for American intellectual property and securing critical cyber infrastructure from attack. This is a good first step toward proving America’s cyber supremacy.

[1] Michele Flournoy and Michael Sulmeyer, “Battlefield Internet,” Foreign Affairs Magazine, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-08-14/battlefield-internet?fa_package=1122877.

[2] Andrei Soldatov, “Cyber Showdown,” Foreign Affairs Magazine, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2016-07-31/cyber-showdown.

[3] Paul D. Shinkman, “America is Losing the Cyber War,” U.S. News, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-09-29/cyber-wars-how-the-us-stacks-up-against-its-digital-adversaries.

[4] Michael B. Kelly, “The Stuxnet Attack On Iran’s Nuclear Plant Was ‘Far More Dangerous’ Than Previously Thought,” Business Insider Magazine, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/stuxnet-was-far-more-dangerous-than-previous-thought-2013-11.

[5] Ellen Nakashima, “NSA and Cyber Command to coordinate actions to counter Russian election interference in 2018 amid absence of White House guidance,” Washington Post, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-and-cyber-command-to-coordinate-actions-to-counter-russian-election-interference-in-2018-amid-absence-of-white-house-guidance/2018/07/17/baac95b2-8900-11e8-85ae-511bc1146b0b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.47f454930e5d.

[6] Danny Vinik, “America’s Secret Arsenal,” Politico, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/12/defense-department-cyber-offense-strategy-000331.

[7] “National Cyber Strategy of the United States of America,” (PDF, U.S.A, 2018). https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/National-Cyber-Strategy.pdf.

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