DOD looks at cyberoffense

The Defense Department is used to going on the offensive for land, sea and air missions, but now two top military commanders are publicly pushing for aggressive cyberspace operations to derail constant attacks on military systems.

Marine General James Cartwright, commander of the Strategic Command told lawmakers during a House Armed Services Committee hearing that the best defense against cyberattacks on military, civil and commercial networks is to go on the offensive.

Cartwright told members that “we [need to] apply the [same] principle of warfare to the cyberdomain as we do to sea, air and land. We realize the defense of the nation is better served by capabilities enabling us to take the fight to our adversaries, when necessary, to deter actions detrimental to our interests.”

He urged Congress to provide DOD with the legal authority to conduct offensive cyberspace operations against adversaries he defined as other countries, terrorists and criminals who attack DOD, civil and commercial networks.

Meanwhile, Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Elder Jr., commander of the 8th Air Force, which will become the Cyber Command later this year, said in a speech at the FOSE trade show in Washington, D.C., that the Air Force is working to achieve cyberspace superiority and indicated that could include offensive operations. Elder did not detail plans for going on the offensive, but when asked about it, he said, “We will probably do some of that, by the way.”

During the past year, DOD has been more vocal about cyberthreats, especially from countries such as China and North Korea.

The threat has moved up on DOD’s radar because of the cost in terms of dollars dedicated to cyberdefense measures, lost intellectual capital and fraud that results from cyberattacks cannot be overestimated, “making these attacks a matter of great national interest,” Cartwright said.

The Stratcom commander said that the United States is under widespread, daily attacks in cyberspace, and the country lacks dominance in the cyberdomain and could become “increasingly vulnerable if we do not fundamentally change how we view this battle space.”

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said offensive cyberspace operations by the United States in response to cyberattacks could lead to consequences, including an escalation by the other side.

But, Paller added, the consequences of not reacting to attacks could be worse than consequences of mounting offensive the cyberspace operations.

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