Cyberwar: without firing a shot

September 20, 1995|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON -- There always have been, and always will be, wars. One and all, they are won when infantry, the Queen of Battle, enters, occupies and controls the enemy's territory. To get there, it has to fight, and its work is eased by supporting arms -- artillery, naval and air forces, none of which can win wars by themselves.

By 1945 air was closing the gap; air bombardment, culminating in the advent of atomic weapons, had all but destroyed the Japanese industrial infrastructure, and, if continued, would have done so and caused national collapse. But air bombardment could not have succeeded without the work of the infantry and naval forces, which had restricted the Japanese economy to the homeland and secured the bases from which the air bombardment was launched.

In the half-century since, we have experienced the maturation of high-tech war. In 1991, the Iranian fighting capacity was so reduced by the six months of Desert Shield that the infantry's work was reduced to a pittance of four days' work.

But that was only the infancy of high-tech warfare. A recent (August 21) issue of Time magazine explored what has happened since, and what is about to happen in the next decade or so. ''Cyberwar'' is vast, sprawling, largely uncontrolled and untested, confusing and still largely speculative -- but it is potentially so great a danger that it is causing a major commotion in military circles.

Cyberwar stems from computers (and specifically their software and communication links), which by now control every aspect of military operations -- and of national economies. Computers control the logistic nightmare of mobilization and deployment -- transport, supply, personnel and communications. Increasingly, they control the battlefield itself -- artillery, missile and air support, intelligence and targeting.

Computers also control national transportation and communications nets, economic infrastructures -- and even, through the media, public opinion and morale. And, through the Internet (which the military itself developed), all these computer systems are globally linked -- and appallingly vulnerable to attack.

Viruses and worms

The object of Cyberwar is to so cripple an opponent's computer networks that he can no longer conduct military operations. The attacker hacks into his systems, destroying or corrupting his software, or planting viruses or worms, activated remotely or set to go at a predetermined time.

Communication links are attacked by jamming, or paralyzed by electromagnetic pulses -- EMPs. False or misleading messages planted in the media (psychological warfare, known as ''psywar'' since the 1940s) confuse leaders, institutions and the populace, destroying confidence and morale and turning the populace against its leaders.

These are by no means simple pranks; we have already had foretastes of what might lie ahead. A single private hacker tied up an impressive proportion of the nation's computers for a short space with a virus; there are now virus safeguards, but new ones remain an ever-present danger. Accidental air-traffic control-system breakdowns have thrown entire regions into confusion.

And, among endless computer crime, a group of six crooks recently hacked into a major bank and transferred $10 million to false accounts it had set up. (The bank accepted the transfer orders -- but another security program did determine the recipient accounts were false; all but $400,000 was recovered.)

There have been hundreds of such incidents. Imagine the effect of a massive, coordinated attack. Before the viruses and worms could be discovered and eliminated, mobilization orders, if they got through, might list false units and destinations; material would not be ordered, or sent to the wrong locations; trains would collide, telephones and faxes fail to operate, air-traffic control would cease. Stock markets and banking systems would collapse.

On the battlefield

On the battlefield, missiles and artillery fire would go astray, anti-missile systems would fail. Command would receive misleading tactical summaries -- if it received them at all.

All this could be brought about without great effort on the part of the military, which has barely started to organize to explore the possibilities, dangers or ramifications. Private groups -- individual hackers -- are already offering to contract for such work.

Thanks to our overwhelming lead in the world of computing, we are even more vulnerable than other countries.

In ''The Cuckoo's Egg,'' Clifford Stoll describes a 1988 Soviet-backed attack (working through German hackers) on 400 ARPA and MILNET computers; it took Mr. Stoll, who noticed a 75-cent discrepancy while working on computer-billing accounts in the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, almost a year to work out on his own what was happening, and then to get any government agency interested in checking it out.

Cyberwar won't replace conventional war (even considering nuclear weapons as part of conventional war); it will play a comparatively small role in brushfire regional conflicts.

But the next century may well see a major war started and finished on keyboards, with a defeated nation in a state of total military, economic and political collapse, before a single soldier had fired a shot.

Donald R. Morris, a retired naval officer, syndicates a column.

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