Security and Defense: Meet the ‘Cyber Defenders’

The ‘Post’ gets exclusive look at soldiers trained to prevent infiltrations of country’s most classified networks.

Cyber defense war room 370 (photo credit: Reuters and Marc Israel Sellem)
Cyber defense war room 370
(photo credit: Reuters and Marc Israel Sellem)
August 2013. IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers are taking up positions throughout southern Lebanon following a series of Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv.
The forces are gearing up to conquer over 100 villages where Military Intelligence says Hezbollah has deployed its guerrillas and rocket launchers.
Days earlier, Israel Air Force F-16s and F-15s bombed hundreds of targets throughout northern Lebanon, taking out the vast majority of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles, supplied by Iran and Syria.
The infantry and armored battalions had trained for this day for years. Commanders carefully studied the failures of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and stressed the need for interoperability between the IDF’s various branches – air, sea and land.
The years of training and the unprecedented investment in technology was about to pay off with the largest joint air-naval-ground campaign in Israeli history.
But then, something went wrong. Just as the chief of staff was about to give the attack order, the screens in the tanks and the APCs on which soldiers can see the positions of friendly and enemy forces flickered for a second and went blank.
Attack helicopters hovering above to provide air support suddenly lost communication with troops below and back in the underground command center in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, the chief of staff was wiping the sweat from his brow as he looked at a row of screens suddenly overtaken by gray and white static.
This scenario is Israel’s nightmare, one that top IDF officers admit causes them to lose sleep at night.
In simple terms it is the possibility that IDF networks will be hacked by someone searching for information.
In more complicated terms, it could mean that Israel’s enemies will not only infiltrate a network but will also try to shut it down or take it over.
Can this happen? No one really knows. Do Israel’s enemies have the capability to do this today? Also an unknown but even if this is not the case, they could one day and the IDF needs to be ready.
“The threat is growing,” a senior officer from the C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) Directorate explained this week.
“The more we, as a military, rely on communications and computer networks, the more vulnerable we become.”
Understanding the magnitude of this evolving threat, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz ignored government-sanctioned budget cuts earlier this year and approved a special multi-year budget program aimed at bolstering Israel’s cyber capabilities – offensive and defensive.
This week, The Jerusalem Post was provided an exclusive look at one of the newest and most classified units in the IDF – the Cyber Defense Division.
Established a year ago, the division made history on Tuesday with the graduation of its first course of “Cyber Defenders,” the term the army has given to this new, revolutionary military role.
The 30 soldiers who completed the 15-week course will be dispersed throughout the IDF’s branches where they will prowl computer networks in an effort to prevent and detect infiltrations.
“Our purpose is to create a capability for the IDF to confront threats developing in the cyber world and to enable the IDF to defend itself from disruptions to its operational procedures,” Col. D., commander of the Cyber Defense Division, said in a rare interview.
The decision to establish the division was made in 2010 by Gantz, who then served as deputy chief of staff under Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
Ashkenazi had asked Gantz to conduct a review of the IDF’s cyber capabilities and to consider how to better organize them. One possibility was to follow the United States and NATO that had established dedicated cyber commands.
Ultimately, however, Gantz and Ashkenazi decided to divide the responsibilities between the C4I Directorate and Military Intelligence.
Military Intelligence Unit 8200, the equivalent of the US National Security Agency and already responsible for signal intelligence, eavesdropping on the enemy and code decryption, was entrusted with offensive cyber capabilities. Defense was put in the hands of D. and his new division in the C4I Directorate.
The branches work closely together and rely heavily on each other’s input and experience.
The Cyber Defense Division, for example, receives intelligence on enemy cyber capabilities from Military Intelligence, and Unit 8200 looks to the C4I Directorate for technical guidance.
The C4I Directorate also established a cyber war room in the Kirya military headquarters where officers can keep an eye on the army’s various networks. Currently, the directorate is developing a new command-and-control system that will enable it to oversee all of the main networks at once without needing to look at each one individually.
The importance of this unit for the IDF was demonstrated in the decision to allow D. to recruit soldiers into the Cyber Defenders course who have a high-enough profile to serve in combat units.
Once accepted, the soldiers sign on for an additional year and a half on top of their three years of compulsory service.
“The soldiers are like hunters,” said Col. D. “They go on patrols and conduct surveillance just like soldiers do in the air, on the ground and at sea, although with different weapons.”
One of them, U., said that while he was interested in computers in high school he never realized that his new job would be so important and interesting.
Another soldier, S. – the only woman in the course – wanted to serve in a combat unit but after she was offered the post decided to accept.
“Without a strong defense, the offense will not be worth as much,” she explained. “If you don’t protect your information your attempted attack might not be successful.”
Israel’s expertise in cyber warfare comes from defense industries that are built on graduates of some of the IDF’s elite technological units as well as from IDF units where capabilities are developed in-house.
Everyone agrees that cyber warfare is still in its early stages but is quickly developing.
Stuxnet, the virus Israel was reported by foreign sources to have used to attack Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, has been likened to a bomb and reports of additional viruses have surfaced.
One of the division’s greatest challenges, though, is in trying to predict the future – what type of capabilities Israel’s enemies are developing and how will they be used to attack IDF networks.
“The challenge is to accurately be able to tell what tomorrow will bring,” D.
explained. “We need to prepare for the next war, not the one that we already fought.”
While the IDF refuses to comment on whether cyber attacks have already occurred, there are believed to be attempts – some sophisticated and some not – almost every day.
D. said he will not be able to declare success until the real test takes place. The unit’s new insignia, though, provides the answer as to how D. would like that test to end – it shows a globe being struck by lightning. The lightning, however, fails to penetrate and instead shatters into pieces.
“That is what we are supposed to do,” he said with a smile.