From the ancient battlefields of King David to the mountains of Afghanistan, historically warfare has consisted of great armies massed against one another employing the most advanced weaponry of the time. But as a disturbing cyber attack on the Pentagon demonstrates, tomorrow's battlefield promises to be a vastly different but no less dangerous war zone. And just as the United States invested enormous resources in the Cold War nuclear arms race to protect the nation, the threats posed by an enemy armed with just a computer keyboard should be treated with the same alarm and urgency.
The Defense Department has acknowledged it was the target of the most invasive cyber attack in history in March when an unnamed foreign intelligence service hacked into the computer system of a corporate contractor, making off with 24,000 highly sensitive Pentagon files. The treasure trove of material included information on missile tracking systems, satellite navigation devices, surveillance drones and high performance jet fighters. The usual suspects are Russia and China. But in today's computer era, the culprit could be any one of a long list of America's foes and even its friends.
The breach is a particular embarrassment to the military's Cyber Command, which was created to coordinate the nation's intricate defensive and offensive computer networks. Clearly those charged with protecting the national security of classified military information need to do a better job in meeting their duty.
What the cyber attack demonstrated is that a skilled and resourceful hacker, either acting on behalf of a foreign government or even a terrorist organization, can burrow into the nation's most secret and highly guarded databases. The implications are chilling. If the Pentagon can be compromised, how vulnerable are the nation's electrical grids, or water systems, or air traffic control operations, or even our missile defense program — all at great risk of being disrupted without a single shot being fired?
The March computer hacking incident may be the biggest, but it was not the first. Last year, the United States and Israel were suspected of being behind the Stuxnet cyber worm, which made its way into the computers of Iran's nuclear program and reportedly created enough chaos to delay Tehran's nuclear weapons ambitions by several years.
The Pentagon cyber intrusion should be considered an act of belligerence with serious consequences for those attempting to attack the nation, whether the threat comes from a foreign power or terrorists tapping away at a computer. After all, the stakes are too high for the United States to allow itself to so readily have its cyber pocket picked.