The threat of military cyber attack must be taken seriously, according to NATO: but the alliance isn't sure what to do about it. Meanwhile, the USA is preparing not only its cyber defences, but the ability to mount network assaults.
In Brussels yesterday, NATO defence ministers agreed that firm and decisive action was necessary to protect "information systems of critical importance," Reuters reports. The Alliance spokesman added:
"[Recent DDoS attacks in Estonia] were sustained, coordinated and focused. They had clear national security and economic implications," he said. "That will be the subject of work here."
After initially fingering the Russian government as being behind the May DDoS outbreak - and attendant media furore in the West about the "future of warfare" - the Estonians have recently climbed down. It's now their official position that the recent episodes were "criminal" or "terrorist" in nature, rather than an act of war.
That's important to NATO, Estonia being a member state. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty - the binding agreement of NATO - says that an "attack against one or more [allies] shall be considered an attack against them all." If Russia mounts an attack on Estonia, it is attacking the Western military powers too: France, the UK - and America.
But the West doesn't want to rattle any fresh sabres with Russia - there's already enough of that going on, so it's helpful of the Estonians to stop shouting about a Russian cyber "attack". One might even speculate that their NATO allies asked them to cool it.
Behind closed doors, though, it seems that the Estonians are still pressing for some collective action by the Alliance on the cyberwarfare front. Reuters quotes the Estonian defence chief, Jaak Aaviksoo, in Brussels for the NATO discussions.
"We got more support than we expected, particularly with this acknowledgement of an urgent need to react," he said.
The USA is reacting already. Not only has the White House "war czar", General Douglas Lute, pledged to go after global terror on the net, the US military is forming up a cyber command manned by career specialists in network warfare.
The newly formed US Air Force Cyber Command will be manned at least to some degree by specialists rather than regular airmen temporarily assigned. Lt Gen Robert Elder, cyber commander, has said that in future Americans will be able to join up as network combatants just as they might in the past have opted to be pilots or navigators. Apparently the USAF alone has 40,000 people conducting "cyberoperations in one form or another."
And it may not just be Russian DDoS attackers that the air force cyber-troopers have to tackle. General Elder has also said this week that China is blatantly seeking to challenge America in network warfare. This certainly chimes with the USA's recent assessment of Chinese military power, in which the Pentagon suggested that Neuromancer style Kuang Grade Mark Eleven Chinese military penetration software may soon become a reality.
The US cyber command, at least, doesn't intend to be caught napping. Perhaps General Elder has read his cyberpunk classics; even now a genuine Operation Screaming Fist may be gearing up.
Cry havoc, and let slip the worms of war, style of thing.®