With the UK Labour Party self-immolating in fine old style as various factions debate its policies on nuclear armaments, specifically the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile system, the impotent membra virile of the Royal Navy, it is worth noting that some military experts now believe that the world’s major, nuclear-armed nation-states will eventually discard such wanton weapons of mass destruction in their future defence and security policies. Why lay waste to an enemy’s city, and invite annihilation on your own head, when you can simply bring it to a standstill for several hours or days or weeks at a time? An extract from a lengthy Guardian article by Julian Borger:
“In a hotel in the Estonian capital Tallinn, 400 soldiers and civilians are taking part in Nato’s biggest ever cyber war game, Locked Shields. At ranks of computer screens, young men with crew cuts in camouflage fatigues sit interspersed with teams of male and female hackers in green and yellow T-shirts, most in their early 20s, many with piercings and tattoos.
In a separate conference room, a team of hackers in red T-shirts are sequestered away. They have researched the latest cyber weapons in circulation on the darknet and are throwing them at competing teams taking part here and remotely, from various Nato capitals and bases. The aim, says Colonel Artur Suzik, the Estonian army officer who is the game’s host, is “to put these people under stress”.
Estonia learned the importance of cyber defence the hardest way possible. In 2007, it became the target of the first concerted state-on-state cyber attack, when Moscow decided to show the small former Soviet republic that it was still under Russia’s shadow. The assault unfolded in late April and early May. The servers of the country’s banks were hacked, forcing them to close down all but essential operations, and move to proxy servers in Lithuania. Without a shot being fired, a nation’s entire financial infrastructure was forced into exile.
At the same time, mass text messages were sent from an anonymous source to Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority, telling them to drive very slowly through the city centre at a certain time of day. The drivers kept moving, so technically no crime was committed, but it brought Tallinn to a virtual standstill. Then the telephone numbers of vital government services all started ringing at once, nonstop, as they were swamped by robot calls.
It was a frightening early display of the vulnerability of modern societies to this new form of aggression. It was also an example of what has now become known as hybrid warfare, in which the dividing line between war and peace is blurred, and acts of war are shrouded in ambiguity and deniability. Since 2007, there has been a steady drip-drip of small probing attacks on Estonia, continuing at a low enough intensity so as to be absorbed into daily life. “It is a constant background noise,” says Hillar Aarelaid, who was chief of Estonia’s cyber defences in 2007. “It’s like being by the sea and hearing the waves.”
In anticipation of the next big attack, Nato’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence has been set up in Tallinn, and links have been established between the military and a civilian infrastructure. Most of the Estonian computer experts and hackers currently sitting in this hotel ballroom would be called up in a crisis.
If the 2007 incident was destabilising, it now seems as rudimentary as a zeppelin attack. The weapons available to hackers today are far more sophisticated and powerful, menacing even the most heavily guarded networks.
In a corner of the ballroom, a bank of large screens shows how the game is unfolding, a graphic portrayal of what a wired society looks like when it begins to break down in the face of a well-organised cyber offensive.
Their trajectories can be seen drifting around a map of the northern hemisphere on a screen on the wall. On another screen, what looks like a big ball of multicoloured electronic wool constantly rearranges itself. Each coloured strand represents a new computer connection being made; it is a shimmering picture of the battlefield, showing the ever-changing patterns of attack.
A cyber security team from Nato headquarters in Belgium is eventually declared the winner, having built the most secure systems, and rebuilt them fastest. What we have seen in this ballroom is what warfare will look like in the future…”
Even allowing for hyperbole and the vagaries of prognostication there seems little doubt that many future clashes between the world’s military powers will begin – and perhaps end – on computer battlefields, with never a shot fired or missile launched in anger. However, one can be sure that the greater the electronic threat posed, the greater the likelihood of it spilling over into the blood and flesh world. The next hundred years may be the age of cybernetic warfare but it will once again be the age of deep, underground bunkers, mobile command-and-control centres and sacrificial deceptions. Former hackers may be having fun now but they might be less sanguine when cowering behind blast-proof doors as ground-penetrating bombs come hurtling earthwards or while scurrying from city to forest as blue-sky drones hunt them down. Ironically the surest, physical method of ending cybernetic attacks in a nation-to-nation conflict would be through a weapon generating an explosive electromagnetic pulse to disable the enemy’s power and communications equipment. As happens with a nuclear detonation.