U.S. Cyber Command Moves Towards Lethal Cyber Weapons

U.S. Cyber Command $460 million Cyber Project
In a follow-up to a recent round-up; according to NextGov, an upcoming $460 million project at U.S. Cyber Command will outsource a number of offensive cyber capabilities to the private sector.  NextGov reports that these new weapons that will be developed will give the U.S. military the ability to launch logic bombs which would be capable of causing critical infrastructure to essentially self-destruct.  The article quotes the head of Raytheon’s Government Cyber Solutions Division, Ret. Adm. Bill Leigher “When I use ‘cyberwar’, I’m thinking of it, in a sense of war …  [s]o yes, war is violence.”

DoD Law of War Manual

In June, the DoD released the “Law of War Manual”. NextGov reports that the chapter entitled “Cyber Operations” provides three potential actions that the Pentagon deems to be legal in cyberspace:

  1. Triggering a nuclear plant meltdown,
  2. Opening a dam upstream from a population center,
  3. Disabling air traffic control services

Furthermore, NextGov indicates that the stated role of the Pentagon in the context of Cyberspace is: (1) Prevent or block foreign hackers from targeting domestic systems, (2) providing assistance to U.S. combat operations overseas, and (3) the defense of military networks.  Accomplishing those mission objectives is no different from standard military operations in a conventional warfare setting, according to Ret. Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap, the executive director of Duke University’s Center o Law, Ethics, and National Security.  In the article, Dunlap goes on to say that this essentially comes down to a balancing test with reasonable collateral damage on one side and the military objectives on the other; so long as the collateral damage isn’t disproportionately greater than the probability of military success, lethal impacts to civilians are acceptable in a cyber strike situation.

Analyzing the Uncertainty of the Scope and Duration of Cyber Weapons
CYBERCOM spokeswoman Kara Soules indicated to NextGov that it is vitally important to understand the success rate of any cyber-weapon.  The concept of cyber joint munitions effectiveness indicates that a cyber weapon has been carefully evaluated such that there is an understanding of the rate of effectiveness against a given target, according to the article.  NextGov reports that Tim Maurer, a cyber policy researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated that outside the U.S., governments are also hiring private organizations to develop cyber munitions which include zero-day exploits.  One issue which then arises is the fact that malware is not designed to self-neutralize and consequently the impacts can be far-reaching and of an unknown duration, reports NextGov.  For instance, in the case of the Stuxnet virus, which was first revealed back in 2010,  Microsoft was still dealing with the after-effects of this virus and issued yet another patch, (latest patch released March 2015), according to NextGov.  Consequently, statements that NextGov attributes to Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force Intelligence and National Security Agency Director, are particularly vexing when Leighton states that the use of cyber munitions is like the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II, where we really didn’t fully understand the consequences of using nuclear weapons.

My Opinion:
As our ability to wage war has continued to expand and our use of technology becomes pervasive we seem to be removing some of the human elements from the battlefield.  With weapons such as smart bombs and drones, we have enabled military actors to engage targets from locations far removed from the actual theater of operations.  While this likely has resulted in saving countless U.S. lives, the psychological impacts are vastly different from those engaged in direct line-of-sight hostilities with enemy combatants.  When we add layers of abstraction we create a different understanding of the impact that is felt when we launch offensive operations.  Going back to the Battle of Bunker Hill, when the command ordered the men to refrain from engaging their targets “until you see the whites of their eyes” that was an active participation in the waging of war.  Looking down the end of a barrel at a target is vastly different than writing and then executing code that releases a dam’s floodgates or causes a nuclear reactor to meltdown.  There comes a point where the ability to inflict human damage and lethal action remotely may help to save lives on one side, but at what cost?  Clicking a mouse or pressing the enter key, inserting a thumb drive, these are all simple, innocuous actions, their meaning depends entirely on the context.  When you pull a trigger you understand what the result will be and it may be a decision of conscious thought.  When you remove that element from the equation you may end up making death and destruction too inexpensive for the initiator and that cost then gets shifted to humanity as a whole.  The question then becomes, is this a cost that humanity can afford to bear?

Additionally, while the U.S. and other first-world nations continue to invest significant time and resources in the development of advanced cyber weapons, the irony is that it is these very nations that are at greatest risk of an infrastructure failure caused by cyber munitions.  With the ubiquity of technology and our reliance upon it, the first world nations have an enormous exposure vs. that of the remainder of the developing world.


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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. Full biography

Shelby E. Mann

Ryan D. WhiteShelby is a second year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law. She is the 2018-9 Editor in Chief of the Syracuse Law Review, as well as a member of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and the senior editor for the Syrian Accountability Project. During her final year at the University of Missouri, she served as a full-time news producer for ABC 17 News. Shelby spent her first summer of law school at the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office in Memphis, Tenn., in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Unit. Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

Anna Maria Castillois 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

holds Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Administration degrees from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Law. She wrote for this blog when a student. She is now a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography


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