Defense

U.S. official: Russian cyberwarfare getting more sophisticated

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Russia has turned eastern Ukraine into an information battlefield, and U.S. defense officials are watching every move, in part for hints about Russian tactics in the emerging field of cyberwarfare.

Robert Giesler, chief of strategy and plans in the secretary of Defense's Strategic Capabilities Office, is the latest U.S. official to reflect publicly on how Russia's campaign in Ukraine underscores the role of information systems in 21st-century warfare.

"We have certainly seen the sophistication of cyber strikes improve over Estonia and Georgia, from rudimentary denial-of-service to...relatively sophisticated surgical effects," Giesler said Jan. 20 at a National Defense Industrial Association conference in Washington.

He was referring to the 2007 attacks on Estonian government websites -- among other targets -- that were widely blamed on Moscow and a similar campaign against Georgian websites that coincided with Russia's 2008 military campaign in that country.

"We see cyber being increasingly used as a first-strike weapon by peer competitors as well as by non-peer competitors," Giesler said, adding that non-military assets are increasingly the targets.

He cited as an example the recent hacking of part of the Ukrainian power grid, calling it the work of an "unattributable actor." Some media reports have linked the hacks to Russia.

Russian forces have used advanced systems to jam Ukrainian battlefield communications. Within minutes of using a radio, Ukrainian commanders would be targeted by Russian-backed artillery strikes, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. He has described eastern Ukraine as a "laboratory for the future of 21st-century warfare."

Russia's offensive in Ukraine has drawn attention to further developing the U.S. Army's electronic warfare capabilities, according to Col. Jeffrey Church, chief of the Army's Electronic Warfare Division. The Russians "have some good practices and some good [tactics, techniques and procedures], and we can learn from them and incorporate them into our training," he said last month.

The Army put about $45 million toward research in advanced electronic warfare technology in fiscal 2015, according to the Defense Department's comptroller.

After his Jan. 20 remarks, Giesler told FCW that it wasn't so much the sophistication of Russia's electronic warfare in Ukraine that had his attention, but the quantity of the attacks and the way they were coupled with kinetic strikes. For Giesler, Moscow's use of brute force in the information domain was noteworthy.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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