The brave new world of cyber warfare

‘Cyber warfare: the great wild card that can turn the world’s most advanced technology against itself.’ Photograph: Aaron Tilley for the Guardian

‘Cyber warfare: the great wild card that can turn the world’s most advanced technology against itself.’ Photograph: Aaron Tilley for the Guardian

In an operations room at the Nato command compound in Mons, Belgium, is another bank of screens, this time depicting near-constant real-life attacks, in the form of red lines of data. Ian West, head of cyber security at Nato’s Communications and Information Agency, puts the success of its team in the Locked Shields exercise down to the experience gleaned here. “Every single day, we are operational, experiencing attacks and defending against them,” the former RAF officer says.

West’s agency logs around 200m suspicious events a week. Many of those are automatically discarded by filters, but that still leaves 250-350 serious cases each week against Nato HQ and bases around the world, each of them requiring intervention from the 200-strong multinational group of security analysts and programmers gathered here. There are many more attacks on the national infrastructures of member states.

Right now, the greatest constraint on Nato’s ability to defend itself against attack is the scarcity of security specialists. The Russian and Chinese security establishments are known to have corralled networks of hackers. In China, the now infamous Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army was discovered, in 2013, to have been running an almost constant cyber-offensive against western companies and governments for seven years, from a 12-storey building in Shanghai; the offensive involved thousands of English-speaking hackers. A mass networked assault on Nato infrastructure from China two years ago is believed to have been the work of the same unit; more recently, there have been constant attacks on Nato from hacktivist groups such as CyberBerkut, backing Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine.


An engineer on the Nato research vessel Alliance. Photograph: CMRE

An engineer on the Nato research vessel Alliance. Photograph: CMRE

For half a century, big missile submarines, known as boomers, have been arguably the most decisive weapon systems in modern warfare – the queen on the strategic chessboard – because of their capacity to remain unseen until the critical moment, unleashing enormous destructive force without warning. Now that dominant position is under threat. A submarine can hide from a few noisily obvious ships and planes, but it is harder to hide from a swarm of small, virtually undetectable drones. The robots being developed here can potentially be made cheap and expendable, and capable of being deployed in large numbers to cover vast expanses of sea. Once fully developed, they could tilt the balance of power beneath the waves – much as airborne drones are already doing in the sky. It is unclear how far other countries have got with underwater drone technology; it is known that the Russian navy is working on it intensively.

The implications of these advances are far-reaching for all military powers, but none more so than the UK, which depends on the invisibility and stealth of submarines for its Trident nuclear missiles. The government is in the process of placing a £31bn gamble that its submarines will stay invisible for the foreseeable future – a bet that might be splitting the Labour party but is little debated outside it. Yet these developments could drastically change the debate: from whether an independent British nuclear deterrent is good, bad or necessary, to whether Trident would even function as a deterrent in the long term.

Critics point in particular to the Royal Navy’s decision to install a variant of Windows XP as the operating system on its missile-carrying Vanguard-class submarines. It was cheaper than the alternatives, but Windows for Submarines, as it is called, is also more vulnerable to malware as it comes off-the-shelf. This also means there are more bugs in circulation that could affect it, and every time a submarine comes to port and gets a software patch, it is newly vulnerable.

But the Ministry of Defence insists that Trident “remains safe and secure. Submarines operate in isolation by design, and this contributes to their cyber resilience. We take our responsibility to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent extremely seriously and continually assess the capability of our submarines to ensure their operational effectiveness, including against threats from cyber and unmanned vehicles.”

Peter Roberts, a former Royal Navy officer now at Royal United Services Institute, tells me that British technicians are well aware of the potential software vulnerabilities and have instituted special safeguards. He says predictions of the submarine’s demise as a stealth weapon are premature.

“None of this anti-submarine technology has been perfected,” he says. “And what you are not able to do with drones is get them to work together, because of the problems of communications underwater. I can’t see a breakthrough in the next 15 years, and you are never going to see the whole ocean. We are talking about a water space that covers two-thirds of the world’s surface. This is not a needle in haystack. It’s way beyond that.”

Read the complete articlle on The Guardian newspaper website.