U.S. Defense Department cyber units are incrementally becoming a part of the response to ransomware and system intrusions orchestrated from foreign soil. But diverting the military capabilities to augment national civilian cyber defense gaps is an unsustainable and strategically counterproductive policy.
The U.S. concept of cyber deterrence has failed repeatedly, which is especially visible in the blatant and aggressive SolarWinds hack where the assumed Russian intelligence services, as commonly attributed in the public discourse, established a presence in our digital bloodstream. According to the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, cyber deterrence is established by imposing high costs to exploit our systems. As seen from the Kremlin, the cost must be nothing because blatantly there is no deterrence; otherwise, the Russian intelligence services should have restrained from hacking into the Department of Homeland Security.
After the robust mitigation effort in response to the SolarWinds hack, waves of ransomware attacks have continued. In the last years, especially after Colonial Pipeline and JBS ransomware attacks, there has been an increasing political and public demand for a federal response. The demand is rational; the public and businesses pay taxes and expect protection against foreign attacks, but using military assets is not optimal.
Presidential Policy Directive 41, titled “United States Cyber Incident Coordination,” from 2016 establishes the DHS-led federal response to a significant cyber incident. There are three thrusts: asset response, threat response and intelligence support. Assets are operative cyber units assisting impacted entities to recover; threat response seeks to hold the perpetrators accountable; and intelligence support provides cyberthreat awareness.
The operative response — the assets — is dependent on defense resources. The majority of the operative cyber units reside within the Department of Defense, including the National Security Agency, as the cyber units of the FBI and the Secret Service are limited.
In reality, our national civilian cyber defense relies heavily on defense assets. So what started with someone in an office deciding to click on an email with ransomware, locking up the computer assets of the individual’s employer, has suddenly escalated to a national defense mission.
The core of cyber operations is a set of tactics, techniques and procedures, which creates capabilities to achieve objectives in or through cyberspace. Successful offensive cyberspace operations are dependent on surprise — the exploitation of a vulnerability that was unknown or unanticipated — leading to the desired objective.
The political scientist Kenneth N. Waltz stated that nuclear arms’ geopolitical power resides not in what you do but instead what you can do with these arms. Few nuclear deterrence analogies work in cyber, but Waltz’s does: As long as a potential adversary can not assess what the cyber forces can achieve in offensive cyber, uncertainties will restrain the potential adversary. Over time, the adversary’s restrained posture consolidates to an equilibrium: cyber deterrence contingent on secrecy. Cyber deterrence evaporates when a potential adversary understands, through reverse engineering or observation, our tactics, techniques and procedure.
By constantly flexing the military’s cyber muscles to defend the homeland from inbound criminal cyber activity, the public demand for a broad federal response to illegal cyber activity is satisfied. Still, over time, bit by bit, the potential adversary will understand our military’s offensive cyber operations’ tactics, techniques and procedures. Even worse, the adversary will understand what we can not do and then seek to operate in the cyber vacuum where we have no reach. Our blind spots become apparent.
Offensive cyber capabilities are supported by the operators’ ability to retain and acquire ever-evolving skills. The more time the military cyber force spends tracing criminal gangs and bitcoins or defending targeted civilian entities, the less time the cyber operators have to train for and support military operations to, hopefully, be able to deliver a strategic surprise to an adversary. Defending point-of-sales terminals from ransomware does not upkeep the competence to protect weapon systems from hostile cyberattacks.
Even if the Department of Defense diverts thousands of cyber personnel, it can not uphold a national cyber defense. U.S. gross domestic product is reaching $25 trillion; it is a target surface that requires more comprehensive solutions.
First and foremost, the shared burden to uphold the national cyber defense falls primarily on private businesses, states and local government, federal law enforcement, and DHS.
Second, even if DHS has many roles as a cyberthreat information clearinghouse and the lead agency at incidents, the department lacks a sizable operative component.
Third, establishing a DHS operative cyber unit is limited net cost due to higher military asset costs. When not engaged, the civilian unit can disseminate and train businesses as well as state and local governments to be a part of the national cyber defense.
Establishing a civilian federal asset response is necessary. The civilian response will replace the military cyber asset response, which returns to the military’s primary mission: defense. The move will safeguard military cyber capabilities and increase uncertainty for the adversary. Uncertainty translates to deterrence, leading to fewer significant cyber incidents. We can no longer surrender the initiative and be constantly reactive; it is a failed national strategy.
Jan Kallberg is a research scientist at the U.S. Army Cyber Institute. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army Cyber Institute, the U.S. Army or the U.S. Defense Department.