The Pentagon has acknowledged using its storehouse of new digital weapons to attack Islamic State communications networks, the first time that the US military has acknowledged doing so during an active war.
Operators from the US Cyber Command, the young military command twinned to the National Security Agency, have launched assaults on nodes, overloading them with data, US defense chief Ashton Carter said on Monday.
Carter told reporters the US was “looking to accelerate” cyber-strikes he likened to the traditional disruption of enemy command networks.
The US cyber-attacks, which Carter said complemented familiar methods of signal jamming over radio frequencies, seek to instill a loss of confidence in the security and efficacy of internal Isis communications.
Analysts who have long tracked the development and incorporation of digital weapons into the US military arsenal considered Carter’s acknowledgment to be a milestone.
“The cyberwar seal has been broken in public”, said Peter W Singer of the New America Foundation.
Thus far, the US has only acknowledged using digital weaponry in vague terms. Secrecy has surrounded their use, as the US cyber arsenal has seen operation as part of covert intelligence activities, rather than as a component of an ongoing war.
Stuxnet, a worm that disrupts the functions of industrial centrifuges used in Iran’s nuclear program, is widely believed to have been jointly developed by the US and Israel. The Obama administration has never formally acknowledged possessing a broader panoply of cyber weapons aimed at the Iranian nuclear program, known as Olympic Games. The New York Times recently reported that the US prepared a campaign for their use, Nitro Zeus, in the event that a diplomatic effort to halt the program broke down.
But the administration considered those online efforts alternatives to warfare. Against Isis, the US is using cyber weapons as a method of warfare alongside the airstrikes, indigenous force training and special operations raids that characterize the US campaign in Iraq and Syria.
With Olympic Games, unlike Stuxnet, Singer said, “the US military is making clear that it can and will carry out offensive cyber operations. Everyone knew we could do it and Isis as the target makes this less controversial, but it is still a big line to cross.”
Carter and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Marine Gen Joseph Dunford, declined to speak about the US cyber campaign in detail, but said it contributed the broader objectives of isolating the Isis capital of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
“Conceptually, that’s the same thing we’re trying to do in the cyberworld,” Dunford said Monday.
Both senior officials acknowledged a potential loss of intelligence coming from the assaults on Isis networks the US monitors, but expressed hope that they would press Isis fighters into using more interceptable modes of communications.
In addition to overloading or defacing Isis’s web presence, known as a denial of service attack, and aiming to prevent the uploading or distribution of propaganda, particularly on social media, it is likely that the US Cyber Command is “mapping the people behind networks, their connections and physical locations and then feeding that into targeting on the kinetic side – injecting false info to create uncertainty”, Singer said.