In April 2007, Estonia came under attack. Not by terrorists, fighter planes or tanks, but by computers.
Deemed one of the more computer-savvy countries in the European Union, Estonia’s government computer systems were nonetheless hacked into and came under siege.
The government pointed an accusatory finger at the Kremlin, which had
been angered by the removal of a Soviet World War II memorial from the
center of Tallinn, the capital. The attacks paralyzed, albeit for a
short time, government ministries, banks and media.
The significance of the cyber-attack was that it triggered an
international response and prompted the Western world to begin
confronting the new challenge of cyber-warfare.
In June of that year, NATO defense ministers convened at the alliance’s
headquarters in Brussels and promised immediate action, which led to the
establishment a year later of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center
of Excellence in Estonia with the goal of designing defense systems for
NATO’s network and member countries.
In 2009, the US activated the Cyber Command to defend it from cyber
attacks, which it has come under over the years, allegedly from China.
Israel has also invested heavily in the cyber field in recent years.
After the Americans made the decision to establish a special Cyber
Command, Israel began to consider its own move and at one point even
deliberated the possibility of establishing an entire new command within
the General Staff also to be named the cyber command.
Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz was asked by his
boss Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to evaluate the issue and make
After a short study of the issue, Gantz decided not to establish a new
command and to divide responsibility between Military Intelligence and
the C4I Directorate, responsible for communications.
Military Intelligence Unit 8200, the equivalent of the US National
Security Agency, already responsible for signal intelligence,
eavesdropping on the enemy and code decryption, was entrusted with
offensive cyber capabilities. Defense was left with the C4I Directorate.
To ensure that the two branches continued to cooperate and work
together, the IDF decided in mid 2009 to assign a Military Intelligence
lieutenant colonel to Matzov, the unit in the C4I Directorate that is
responsible for protecting IDF networks.
Matzov is also responsible for writing the codes that encrypt IDF, Shin
Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad networks as well as mainframes
in national corporations, such as the Israel Electrical Corp., Mekorot –
the national water company – and Bezeq.
The officer’s job is to receive the information from Military
Intelligence on enemy capabilities and coordinate with the C4I
Directorate to make changes to IDF computer defenses if needed. In
addition, C4I has established a special team of computer experts which
tries to breach IDF firewalls and encryptions as if it were the enemy.
“The threat is always growing and we always need to be one step ahead,” a
senior C4I officer explained a few months ago. “There are attempts all
the time to try and hack into our networks, and we are aware of our
In December, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, the outgoing head of MI, warned of
the growing cyber-warfare threat. He compared the evolving world of
cyber-warfare to the entrance of air power into militaries and the
effect that had on the battlefield.
Cyber-warfare, he said, fit in well to the IDf’s defense doctrine, both
offensively and defensively. He said that while it was difficult to know
what role cyber-warfare would play in the future, it gave small
countries abilities that used to be only in the hands of superpowers.
‘This is something that is completely blue and white, and we do not need
to rely on foreign assistance or technology,” Yadlin said. “It is a
field that is very well known to young Israelis, in a country that was
crowned a ‘start-up nation.’” Yadlin’s comments resonated widely due to
who said them. In 1981, he was one of the fighter pilots who bombed the
Osirak reactor Saddam Hussein was building in Iraq. His comparison
between cyber-warfare and air power was therefore not taken lightly.
Israel’s expertise in cyber-warfare comes mostly from defense industries
which are built on graduates of some of the IDF’s elite technological
units where they learn to develop cutting-edge technology.
In addition to the C4I Directorate, the Shin Bet in 2002 was put in
charge of securing governmental systems and national infrastructure such
as the power grid and water systems. It also advises banks on how to
protect their data.
ON THE offensive level, not much is known about what Israel can do.
Media reports have widely speculated that it is behind the Stuxnet virus
that has attacked Iran and is possibly behind the delay in activating
the Bushehr nuclear reactor. Some cyber experts have claimed that
Stuxnet, which specifically targets systems made by Germany’s Siemens
company, is one of the most sophisticated worms in existence with an
ability to reprogram control systems.
Either way, Israel is believed to have used cyber tactics against
enemies. In September 2007, when it bombed a Syrian reactor, a report in
The New York Times claimed that cyber tactics and electronic warfare
were used to shut down its air defense commandand- control systems. It
is also believed to have used cyber-warfare against Iran, possibly to
sabotage equipment intended for installation in nuclear facilities.
But Israel has also been the victim of cyber tactics and electronic
warfare. During the Second Lebanon War, Hizbullah reportedly succeeded
in hacking into Israeli communications systems and eavesdropping on what
were supposed to be classified transmissions.
During Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last year, pro-Palestinian
groups reportedly succeeded in attacking the Amos 3 communications
satellite and manipulating network television broadcasts.
While neither of these instances caused serious damage, they are
partially what has prompted the bolstering of defenses. In recent years,
the IDF has become more and more dependent on network warfare.
The Ground Forces Command’s Tzayad Digital Army Program is one example.
Developed by Elbit Systems, the Tzayad – recently installed in several
IDF units – connects all land assets together by enabling every tank to
see where the artillery and infantry units are located and vice versa.
This enables any one of the assets to identify a target, put a dot on
its location on a digital map and then everyone else on the network can
see it. If an enemy succeeds in breaking into the network and seeing the
same map, or alternatively manages to shut it down, Israel will have
lost its qualitative edge in that specific battle.
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