The ongoing fight against Islamic State (ISIL) militants is giveing the U.S. military a real-world opportunity to use its new batch of cyber weapons and tactics, which can be used in other fights against different foes elsewhere in the world.
As the U.S. military steps up airstrikes in support of the Iraqi Army’s imminent assault on the ISIL stronghold of Mosul, cyberattacks against the group also are intensifying, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said during a press conference Feb. 29 at the Pentagon.
“We are…using cyber tools to disrupt ISIL’s ability to operate and communicate over the virtual battlefield,” Carter said. U.S. Cyber Command has until recently been focused on cyber threats from peer competitors like China and Russia, but until now had few tactical deployments of its capabilities, housed primarily at Fort Meade, Md., where the command is collocated with the National Security Agency.
CYBERCOM officials will measure the effects of cyberattacks on ISIL’s communications and use of the internet. That information will help develop operational procedures for future cyber campaigns, but likely will not become public knowledge.
“Probably not,” Carter said when asked if the Pentagon would issue reporters a daily log of cyberattacks and targets as it does a tally of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. “I think we can describe some of the effects…We’ll tell you what we can tell you but not in a way that compromises operational security.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said the ongoing air campaign seeks to isolate ISIL from communication with the outside world and from its own internal lines of communication and supply lines, “in other words…making life difficult for ISIL.”
“Conceptually, that’s exactly the same thing we are trying to do with cyber,” Dunford said. “We are trying, both physically and virtually to isolate ISIL…I’ll be one of the first in arguing that that is about all we should talk about.”
Carter said certain effects of cyber attacks might be shared in the future, but offered no specifics.
“Most importantly, we don’t want the enemy to know when, where and how we are conducting cyber operations,” Dunford said. “We don’t want them to have information that will allow them to adapt over time. We want them to be surprised when we conduct cyber operations.”
Dunford shed some light on the particulars of cyber operations in explaining why the details should be kept secret. Some effects of U.S cyberattacks might mimic “friction associated with the normal course of events in dealing in the information age,” he said.
“Frankly, we don’t want them to know the difference,” Dunford said. “It’s to our advantage to maintain the element of surprise in regard to conducting cyber operations.”
The operations are aimed at limiting the group’s ability to conduct command and control, their ability to communicate with each other and to conduct tactical operations,” Dunford said.
CYBERCOM is using the conflict to practice its tactical offensive capabilities and measure the effects of different intrusions and other cyber efforts. Lessons learned from cyber battles against ISIL could inform future operations against other adversaries elsewhere in the world, Carter said. Combatant commanders facing different foes in other parts of the world are “beneficiaries” of the experience being gained launching cyberattacks against ISIL, Carter said.
Cyber weapons are distinct from and used in tandem with traditional electronic warfare that seeks to disrupt enemy radar and communication capabilities, Carter said.
“The two enable one another and complement each other,” Carter said. “Electronic warfare has been around as long as radio has. Obviously cyber is something new.”
Dunford said cyber operations elsewhere would not exactly match those being launched against ISIL and said the fight would not result in a transferable template of cyber combat.
“What we’re building is an inventory of tools, different capabilities, that combatant commanders can employ,” Dunford said. “You can’t replicate what we’re doing today against ISIL in Iraq and Syria elsewhere in the world. What you can do is leverage the tools that have been developed for this particular operation for other operations around the globe.”