Kosovo ushered in cyberwar

The United States formally established a team of information warriors to support its bombing campaign against Serbia this year, a move that has convinced some military experts that the Defense Department already has engaged in its first-ever cyberwar, electronically attacking critical networks and command and control systems.

According to a high-level briefing paper, the information warfare group—which the paper described as an information operations (IO) cell—had "great success" during the 78-day war, which primarily consisted of an air campaign against targets in Serbia and Kosovo. The briefing paper was prepared for Adm. James Ellis, commander of the U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, who, during the NATO-led Operation Allied Force campaign against Serbia, served as commander of the U.S. component of the operation, called the Joint Task Force Noble Anvil (JTF-NA).

A London-based spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, declined to say whether the United States engaged in cyberwar attacks against Serbian computers or information systems, but did confirm the existence of the IO organization. "It was the first time a Joint Task Force staff was organized with an information operations cell, which was composed of military personnel with expertise in various facets of IO," the spokesman said.

The Navy spokesman used what he called a "textbook definition" to describe the operations that could be conducted by such a cell, including "actions taken to affect adversary information systems while defending one's own information and information systems."

Offensive IO includes a wide range of actions, from destroying an enemy's information infrastructure to more traditional electronic warfare attacks, such as jamming an enemy's radar and attacking computer networks, the Navy spokesman said.

During Operation Allied Force, some Serbs hacked into NATO World Wide Web pages and flooded e-mail accounts in the United States with pro-Serb messages. The Navy spokesman declined to discuss if the U.S. military used any electronic warfare against Serbian systems.

The draft briefing report, titled "A View From The Top" and formatted in a Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentation sent to FCW by e-mail, said IO has "an incredible potential," and "properly executed, could have halved the length of the campaign." The briefing was prepared by Ellis' staff and was one of many versions, none of which has been formally presented, the spokesman said. "It may never be given. It is not a finished product," he said.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Doyle Larson, chairman of the board of the Air Force Association (AFA), said he doubted that the United States set up an IO cell just to coordinate physical attacks or jamming, adding that he was "convinced" the United States engaged in some form of cyberattack against the Serbs.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who heads Business Executives for National Security, agreed that the military set up the IO cell to coordinate operations that went far beyond air strikes against centers that housed command and control systems. McInerney, who served as assistant chief of staff of the Air Force, said "that was a very important cell, and I think it did some very sophisticated things."

McInerney said the sophisticated Serbian air defense system posed a threat to Allied Force pilots, and the IO cell mounted a computer network attack against the system. "The [Serbian] air defense system is hard-wired, making a [cyberattack] difficult," McInerney said. "But I think we could do it and probably did it," with Air Combat Command information warriors playing a key role, he said.

Although the Navy spokesman emphasized the draft nature of the Ellis briefing document, McInerney said that did not diminish the briefing's importance or its accurate assessment of the campaign. "What's in there is all true," he said.

The Air Force Office of Information, in a 28-page report on Operation Allied Force released last week, all but confirmed that IO played a significant role in the Serbian campaign. "The secret new arts of disrupting enemy capabilities through cyber-space attacks appeared to have been a big part of the campaign," according to the report, "The Kosovo Campaign: Aerospace Power Made It Work."

The naval briefing called the IO campaign "perhaps the greatest failure of the war." Although "all the tools were in place...only a few were used," according to the briefing. The briefing praised the IO staff as "great people" but said they "were too junior and from the wrong communities to have the required impact on planning and execution."

IO is "not yet understood by warfighters...and classified beyond their access," according to the briefing.

The full story of the success of U.S. cyberwar efforts in Operation Allied Force will not be known until what the AFA report called the "tight veil of secrecy" is lifted on such operations. But when that happens, "the conclusion may be that the Kosovo operations marked a new stage of evolutions in the contribution of information warfare to aerospace power," the AFA report stated.


  • IT Modernization
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    OMB provides key guidance for TMF proposals amid surge in submissions

    Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat details what makes for a winning Technology Modernization Fund proposal as agencies continue to submit major IT projects for potential funding.

  • gears and money (zaozaa19/Shutterstock.com)

    Worries from a Democrat about the Biden administration and federal procurement

    Steve Kelman is concerned that the push for more spending with small disadvantaged businesses will detract from the goal of getting the best deal for agencies and taxpayers.

Stay Connected