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Cyber Warfare: The New Battlefield

New weapons to wage war continue to be developed and used in the effort to gain and maintain superiority over an adversary. Through cyber warfare, countries could attack each other via computers.

Cyber warfare has been a reality in Hollywood for some time. Movies and TV shows have portrayed soldiers launching attacks against adversaries half a world away by typing commands into a computer. While Hollywood was ahead of reality for years, advances in technology over the past several decades have enabled cyber warfare to become a viable strategic tool.

That's confirmed by Michael Skroch with the U.S. government's Sandia National Laboratories. He heads a special team of cyber warriors who probe computers, including U.S. government systems, looking for security weaknesses. Mr. Skroch says this form of war, while quite real, is not publicly quantified with statistics on numbers of attacks and successes.

"Details on cyber warfare are sensitive," he says. "Everyone is going to hold those closely. Cyber warfare is already with us, and it will be growing in the set of solutions our military has for the future. We've seen this demonstrated in some of the wars in the Middle East. As we've heard in the press, the attacks by the United States have been to disable communications, to cause confusion in the command and control structure of the adversary before a follow-on assault."

1991 Gulf War: An Early Cyber Conflict

The first major U.S. conflict involving computer warfare was the 1991 war against Iraq. The Pentagon does not offer specific details as to what was done, but reports have asserted that Baghdad's air defense radar and other systems were targeted by U.S. cyber warriors.

On today's battlefield, while jets and tanks may be locked in tactical combat, James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says data control and management is how the larger fight is oftentimes won.

"Information dominance is the key to military success. Being able to defend your own information assets and attack your opponents' is crucial. But the ability to do that using the Internet and publicly controlled networks -- it's still sort of limited," he says.

Analyst Lewis says that's because governments and their military forces shield critical computer systems from the Internet so that only authorized people can access them. But despite these efforts, Mr. Lewis says such computer systems can still be compromised.

"What's the best way to attack?" he says. "Is it somebody sitting four thousand miles away in front of a computer terminal, or is it somebody sneaking in onto what people think is a protected system. In some ways, this is a traditional kind of sabotage."

Cyber Tactics: Attacking Data Integrity

Cyber warriors say launching overt attacks on an enemy's computers isn't always the best or most successful tactic. Washington-based cyber security consultant Richard Forno describes another, called "data integrity," that can be devastating to an adversary.

"You can certainly destroy a computer physically or electronically, but a more devious and perhaps more long-term or subtle approach is to 'tweak' [modify] the data on a target [computer] site so that the data is either corrupted or becomes untrustworthy," he says. "It is definitely a viable attack strategy."

But data integrity attacks aren't limited to military defense systems and other direct tools of warfare. Paul Kurtz, Executive Director of the Computer Security Industry Alliance in Washington, says data integrity attacks can also undermine an adversary by targeting systems that, in essence, keep that country functioning.

"Think of scrambling financial data, scrambling blood types, scrambling reservations and airline controls and scrambling customs and immigration data. An attack such as this would be very time consuming to go back and 'untangle' whatever was done," he says.

Mr. Kurtz says that this form of data integrity attack is far easier to accomplish than those on military systems because the computers with financial and other data may be accessible through the Internet.

Data Mining: Looking for Needles in a Haystack

There is yet another way that a country can use computers to gain advantages over another nation. It's called "data mining," the collection of a broad range of economic and other information that when analyzed can provide indications of a country's well-being. Cyber security consultant Richard Forno says data mining is akin to looking for the proverbial "needle in a haystack"

"Who cares if you mine a lot of 'noise' [irrelevant data] to get that one or two useful 'nuggets' of information? In some cases, some organizations and some countries may take the long approach. They don't mind waiting 10 or 15 years to mine and sift through and acquire through whatever means possible those nuggets of information."

Skroch: Symmetry Breeds Caution Among Potential Adversaries

Michael Skroch at the U.S. government's Sandia National Laboratories says cyber warfare is typically most effective in what he calls "asymmetrical" conflict. That's a situation where a small entity such as a rebel faction takes on a larger one, such as a country. He says head-to-head computer conflict between two relatively matched powers is far less likely.

"Where you have a more 'symmetric' engagement," he says, "where each side of a conflict is dependent on their technology, and the loss of that technology could impact them, you're going to see a conflict that is very much akin to physical warfare. And, the use of the cyber element may be held back for the fear that the other side will use cyber warfare as well."

Despite the dangers Mr. Skroch just cited, cyber warfare in some form or another is an everyday reality for many major nations. He and the other analysts interviewed for this report say that as technology advances and more nations become dependent on computer systems, the extent of this warfare will certainly expand, as will its impact. Those analysts say nations must be as prepared to attack and defend on the cyber battlefield as they are on land, sea and the skies.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.