Pentagon: All options on table in cyber-attack (Update)

A major cyber attack on the US military in 2008 prompted major changes in how the Pentagon handles digital threats
A man surfs the web at an Internet cafe. The Pentagon has adopted a new strategy that will classify major cyber attacks as acts of war, paving the way for possible military retaliation, the Wall Street Journal has reported.
The Pentagon said Tuesday that it would consider all options if the United States were hit by a cyber-attack as it develops the first military guidelines for the age of Internet warfare.

President Barack Obama's administration has been formalizing rules on cyberspace amid growing concern about the reach of hackers. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin said it repelled a major cyber-assault a week ago.

The White House on May 16 unveiled an international strategy statement on cyber-security which said the United States "will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country."

"We reserve the right to use all necessary means -- diplomatic, informational, military, and economic -- as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our nation, our allies, our partners and our interests," the strategy statement said.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said Tuesday that the White House policy did not rule out a military response to a cyber-attack.

"A response to a cyber incident or attack on the US would not necessarily be a cyber-response," Lapan told reporters. "All appropriate options would be on the table if we were attacked, be it cyber."

Lapan said that the Pentagon was drawing up an accompanying cyber defense strategy which would be ready in two to three weeks.

The Wall Street Journal, citing three officials who said they had seen the document, reported Tuesday that the strategy would classify major cyber-attacks as acts of war, paving the way for possible military retaliation.

The newspaper said that the strategy was intended in part as a warning to foes that may try to sabotage the US electricity grid, subways or pipelines.

"If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," it quoted a military official as saying.

The newspaper said the Pentagon would likely decide whether to respond militarily to cyber-attacks based on "equivalence" -- whether the attack was comparable in damage to a conventional military strike.

Such a decision would also depend on whether the precise source of the attack could be determined.

The US military suffered its worst cyber-attack in 2008. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn said that a malicious flash drive -- likely from a foreign spy agency -- spread and commandeered computers at US Central Command, which runs the war in Afghanistan.

The attack served as a wakeup call, with the Pentagon setting up a Cyber Command and working up the doctrine for a new type of conflict.

In cyber-warfare, aggressors are often mysterious and hence would not fear immediate retaliation -- a key difference from traditional warfare, in which the fear of one's own destruction is considered a deterrent.

While stepping up defenses, some believe the United States may also be pursuing cyber war. Iran has accused the United States and Israel of last year launching Stuxnet, a worm that reportedly wreaked havoc on computers in the Islamic republic's controversial nuclear program.

The United States and Israel both declined to comment on Stuxnet.

A study released Tuesday by the Center for a New American Society identified the United States, Britain, France, Israel, Russia and China as the leaders in cyber-offense, with Moscow and Beijing viewing cyber-attacks as an attractive option in the event of a major conflict.

But while sophisticated attacks take resources, the study noted that the barriers to entering cyberspace are "extraordinarily low."

"To launch a cyber-attack today, all a person needs is a computer, which costs less than $400 in the United States, an Internet connection and limited technical knowhow," it said.

Joseph Nye, the Harvard University professor and theoretician of power, said in a paper for the report that "it makes little sense to speak of dominance in cyberspace as in sea power or air power."

"If anything, dependence on complex cyber systems for support of military and economic activities creates new vulnerabilities in large states that can be exploited by non-state actors," he wrote.

Explore further

Worst cyber attack on US military came via flash drive

(c) 2011 AFP

Citation: Pentagon: All options on table in cyber-attack (Update) (2011, May 31) retrieved 16 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 31, 2011
About time they came to their senses, they ARE acts of war. And we better not limit this to things done to us by people in other countries. We need to have the same response when people in this country do it to us or someone else. It is out of hand. The true extent of the damage done by cyber crime is immense, what you think you know is just the tip of the iceberg. It needs to be stopped, NOW.

One of the biggest culprits is China. They are either sponsoring much of it or turning a blind eye. There is a simple punishment for them, write off the debt we are accumulating with them. Assess the damage they have done and write it off what we owe them. A couple rounds of that and they'll stop or we won't have a national debt, win-win.

May 31, 2011
Attack back with ones and zeroes!

May 31, 2011
And exactly how do they plan to pinpoint the source of an attack, so as to act upon it? What if it turns out to be domestic? How hard would it be to launch the attack from a satellite connection in the middle of the ocean?

As I see it, this sort of policy just makes it easier to feign casus belli. I don't see how you could objectively prove that an attack originated from a particular country, it still boils down to regular intelligence gathering.

May 31, 2011
When dealing with state actors I can view these as acts of war, but how many rogue individuals will be interpreted (maybe out of convenience) as state actors? Will we be sending the PS3 hacker(s) to Gitmo?

May 31, 2011
About time they came to their senses, they ARE acts of war. And we better not limit this to things done to us by people in other countries. We need to have the same response when people in this country do it to us or someone else. It is out of hand. The true extent of the damage done by cyber crime is immense, what you think you know is just the tip of the iceberg. It needs to be stopped, NOW.

This comment I did not expect here.. You have no clearly idea what you are talking about. You steal cheap labor - people who work under circumstances you don't want to know about, or just don't care about - from developing countries and you dare.. Ah.. Whatever..

May 31, 2011
I have a totally clear idea of what is going on. There are hackers all over the world committing crimes. Some are stealing state secrets from the US (Lockheed just foiled an attempt) and other countries. Chinese hackers have stolen critical military and defense secrets from the US and at least some of it must be sponsored by their government. I am one of the people whose financial info was stolen from the Sony hack. Cyber crime is out of hand both on a government level and a personal level. And yes, some of it can be and has been traced back to the perps.

I'm not responsible for repressing people nor do I support it in response to your mumbo jumbo about cheap labor. If it was up to me I would stop importation of everything but critical items and goods that we don't have or can't make. We will regret allowing the importation of cheap goods to destroy our manufacturing sector someday.

Believe it or not but I believe that this stuff could start a war if it continues to go unchecked.

May 31, 2011
Its such a shame people still think in countries, instead of one unified world. The world starts to change with yourself, as long as you think countries are your enemies, you will act upon such thought(basic Buddhist philosophy), creating hatred towards yourself and towards others.

Also don't get the illusion that the elite care anything about oil, they do not, it is all a political warfare about power and control.

All the shit that American government has done to other countries is not an act of war? Hypocrites!

May 31, 2011
This would provide an extremely easy method of conducting false flag operations resulting in military action.

May 31, 2011
What's the excuse for attacking Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other countries? These countries haven't done anything to the US. Cyber wars? Or generalized wars of aggression?

Jun 05, 2011
So bombing people to death in foreign sovereign nations is not act act of war.

But..guessing a password on the internet is.

America needs better madmen at the helm of their fast sinking ship of ignorance and insanity.

"Welcome to open fascism and Orwellian doublespeak", the signs should say ---around lady liberty's neck.

This thing is about to explode.

Not long now.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more