Because it will be difficult to prevent cyber attacks on critical civilian and military computer networks by threatening to punish attackers, the United States must focus its efforts on defending these networks from cyber attack, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
The study finds that the United States and other nations that rely on externally accessible computer networks—such as ones used for electric power, telephone service, banking, and military command and control—as a foundation for their military and economic power are subject to cyber attack.
Working against connected but weakly protected computer systems, attackers can steal information, make the systems malfunction by sending them false commands and corrupt the systems with bogus information.
In most instances, the damage from cyber attacks is temporary and repeated attacks lead the victim to develop systems that are more difficult to penetrate. The RAND study finds that military cyber attacks are most effective when part of a specific combat operation—such as silencing a surface-to-air missile system protecting an important target—rather than as part of a core element in a long, drawn out military or strategic campaign.
The study indicates that cyber warfare is ambiguous, and that it is rarely clear what attacks can damage deliberately or collaterally, or even determine afterward what damage was done. The identity of the attacker may be little more than guesswork, which makes it hard to know when someone has stopped attacking. The cyber attacker’s motivation, especially outside physical combat, may be equally unclear.
The weapons of cyber war are amorphous, which eliminates using traditional approaches to arms control. Because military networks mostly use the same hardware and software as civilian networks, they have similar vulnerabilities.
The study, “Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar,” was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.