Syria Facing U.S. Cyber Attacks in Upcoming Strikes

Operation will be testing lab for cyber war capabilities

President Obama speaks Saturday, Aug. 31, about U.S. intervention in Syria. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
August 31, 2013

U.S. military forces are expected to roll out new cyber warfare capabilities during the anticipated military strike on Syria for its use of a deadly nerve agent, according to military sources.

Targets of cyber attacks likely will include electronic command and control systems used by the Syrian military forces, air defense computers, and other military communications networks.

President Obama said on Saturday that he has decided to conduct punitive strikes on Syria but will first seek congressional approval for the limited attacks.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the use of cyber warfare attacks.

Cyber warfare capabilities are the responsibility of the new U.S. Cyber Command, a subcommand of the U.S. Strategic Command that has been ramping up both personnel and capabilities over the past several years.

Cyber command specialists are now involved in war planning by U.S. Central Command. The Central Command is in charge of the military operation against Syria that is currently led by at least five guided-missile destroyers now based in waters near Syria.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, a former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said he expects cyber attacks to be part of the strikes.

"Desired outcomes or 'ends' should lead the discussion of ways and means," Deptula told the Free Beacon. "To modify Assad's behavior to cease use of chemical weapons, cyber operations offer a variety of options that could have that kind of effect without the negative consequences of kinetic attacks."

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, said cyber attacks will enhance the effectiveness of cruise missile strikes and degrade or disrupt air defenses.

"Cyber operations will be used to increase the success of the cruise missiles," McInerney said. "Syria has a sophisticated air defense system that will require all our tools for success."

U.S. military electronic warfare units in the past have successfully penetrated enemy air defense networks and are expected to do so in a future Syria operation.

Syria’s air defenses are mainly Russian and Chinese, and a state-run Russian news report this week said that the Damascus regime may have obtained S-300 advanced air and missile defenses covertly from China or Iran.

Foreign military spies from Russia and China are expected to step up activities in and around Syria to watch and learn from the U.S. military operations. China’s military has schooled its forces based on joint warfare by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama said during a Rose Garden announcement at the White House that after speaking with congressional leaders on Saturday he decided to seek House and Senate authorization for the planned military strike. He also said he would not be bound by a no-vote.

A government assessment made public Friday revealed that Syrian government forces used rocket attacks with nerve gas in a suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 people.

The announcement means an imminent cruise missile attack will be delayed while Congress debates whether to approve the strike.

Reports from the region indicate Syria has been moving its forces and hiding military assets over the past week in anticipation of a U.S. attack.

Obama said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told him a military attack is not urgently needed. As a result, "we are prepared to strike whenever we choose," the president said.

Obama said one of the goals of the military strike is to "degrade" Syria’s ability to conduct future chemical weapons attacks.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a skeptic of a Syrian military strike, said in a statement he agrees Syrian leaders should be held accountable for the nerve gas atrocity.

"Authorization for the use of force in this case should be contingent on the president setting clear military objectives that can meet articulated policy goals, including degrading any party's ability to use these weapons again," McKeon said in a statement. "The coming days will determine if such a military operation can be identified. I look forward to the debate."

Top Pentagon leaders told Congress this week that the military cannot pay for a Syrian operation from current depleted budgets and would need to seek additional funds from Congress.

The military sources provided few details on plans for cyber attacks.

Cyber Command commander Gen. Keith Alexander has said U.S. offensive cyber warfare capabilities are advanced.

In congressional testimony made public earlier this month, Alexander said training is increasing for cyber warfare units. They include Cyber National Mission Teams, Cyber Combat Mission Teams, and Cyber Protection Forces.

"We believe our offense is the best in the world," Alexander said in response to written questions form a March House Armed Services Committee hearing.

"Cyber offense requires a deep, persistent and pervasive presence on adversary networks in order to precisely deliver effects," he said. "We maintain that access, gain deep understanding of the adversary, and develop offensive capabilities through the advanced skills and tradecraft of our analysts, operators and developers."

The military must first receive authorization to conduct offensive cyber attacks from the president or secretary of defense. Alexander said that once authorized "our technological and operational superiority delivers unparalleled effects against our adversaries systems."

Preparing for offensive cyber war requires constant knowledge of enemy networks, he said.

"Potential adversaries are demonstrating a rapidly increasing level of sophistication in their offensive cyber capabilities and tactics," Alexander stated. "In order for the Department of Defense to deny these adversaries an asymmetric advantage, it is essential that we continue the rapid development and resourcing of our Cyber Mission Forces."

Most cyber warfare capabilities, including preparations, methods of attack, targets, and effects are secret.

However, in recent public speeches, Alexander has said cyber warfare is shifting from electronic disruption of networks with malicious software and other tools toward using computer to trigger the physical destruction of infrastructure like destruction of hydroelectric generators at dams or creating widespread electrical power outages by attacking electrical power controllers.

Top-secret intelligence documents disclosed this week by the Washington Post revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies conducted 231 cyber operations in 2011.

The documents were provided to the Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

According to the documents, computer warriors are operating under a program code-named GENIE to break into foreign computer networks and plant software that allows for clandestine access and control.

The program spent $652 million on efforts to plant software in tens of thousands of foreign computers and routers each year.

The report said nearly 75 percent of the offensive cyber operations were carried out against Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea.

A top-secret presidential directive on cyber warfare made public by Snowden defines cyber attacks as "offensive cyber effects operations." Cyber attacks will be integrated with its military, diplomatic and intelligence activities "as appropriate" overseas, the order states.

Military cyber actions must be approved by the president and ordered by the secretary of defense and are coordinated with government agencies regarding targets, geographic locations, levels of effects, and degrees of risk for the operations, the order says.

Cyber attacks "can offer unique and unconventional capabilities" to advance U.S. objectives "with little or no warning to the adversary or target with potential effects ranging from subtle to extremely damaging," the order stated.

Potential effects of cyber attacks include disabling control systems used by military forces, sabotaging weapons systems so they explode or malfunction, or scrambling or deceiving enemy computer calculations used in targeting weapons.

The National Security Agency, which is co-located with Cyber Command at Fort Meade, Md., is responsible for preparing the battlefield for cyber attacks through its program to conduct foreign intrusions that plan hardware or software in target computer systems. An NSA group responsible for the activities is called the Tailored Access Operations group that designs attacks for specific targets.

According to the documents, GENIE will control some 85,000 computer implants around the world.

A more advanced program called TURBINE, will seek to work with millions of foreign network implants for both spying and cyber attacks.

The report said NSA operates Remote Operations Centers at Fort Meade as well as in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, and Hawaii that employ hackers for computer attack operations.

The report quoted one document as stating that ROC operators provide "specific target related technical and operational material (identification/recognition), tools, and techniques that allow the employment of U.S. national and tactical specific computer network attack mechanisms."