A good defense requires a good offense, even in cyberspace

Given the complex reality of the new battlefield, it is insufficient to build defenses.

Cyber hackers [illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cyber hackers [illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The multiplying threats in cyberspace and especially the use terrorist organizations make of cyberspace pose a palpable danger to the national security of many nations. Just a few months ago this new reality took a worrisome turn when Islamic State (IS) carried out a cyber-attack against France’s TV5 channel, thus marking a new stage in the struggle between the terrorist organization and the coalition nations. Beyond the fact that the attack was an object lesson played out against a symbol of freedom of expression and Western democracy, it indicated a high level of offensive capabilities involving a long period of preparation and remarkable intelligence gathering and operational abilities.
Given the complex reality of the new battlefield, it is insufficient to build defenses.
It is necessary to incorporate sophisticated offensive tools and change patterns of thought. Existing peripheral security measures are defensive by nature; it is therefore imperative that nations work together not only to defend their strategic resources against hostile attack but also to initiate attacks against enemy targets as part of the system of defense of its sphere. It is no longer possible to be on the defensive. We must adopt the Babylonian Talmud maxim “if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Beyond destroying the cyber-attack tools of hostile entities, counterattacks will serve as a deterrent and preventive measure, just as they do in the physical realm.
One of the topics discussed at the annual conference of the Cyber Security Program at The Institute for National Security Studies held recently in Washington, DC, dealt with promoting cooperation among nations on just this point. Unlike other fields, such as the Iron Dome project for example, cyberspace lacks a joint mechanism allowing the West to create a technological and intelligence-gathering front against cyber-threats. During the discussions, the differences among nations on national preparedness for cyber-attacks on strategic assets were starkly highlighted.
While no one denies that Israel is at the forefront of cyberspace technologies worldwide, in terms of innovative capabilities and the development of sophisticated solution, the United States – quite typically – is already planning the next cyberwar.
Last month, the Pentagon issued a 33-page document laying out an orderly cyberspace policy, specifying national security objectives as a response to cyberspace challenges, including the notion that going on the offensive is a cornerstone of US force construction. The ability to respond to and generate the harshest attack imaginable in any scenario or to any threat is, of course, a message to anyone threatening the United States, especially North Korea, Iran and China, as well as IS.
By contrast, Israel, which has done well in terms of establishing national cyberspace authorities, must prepare in a similar fashion and construct a national security policy for cyberspace that defines the red lines and casus belli of cyber-threats and actual damaging attacks carried out by its enemies. It is hardly a secret that Hezbollah and Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip – all with Iranian backing – are currently developing such capabilities and have already attacked Israeli targets, albeit with only limited success. This trend must be taken seriously. An orderly policy can become a deterrent against such attempts in the future.
One may take comfort in the fact that the United States places cyber-attacks at the front and center in its doctrine of warfare.
During the conference, several sources unequivocally expressed the US commitment to defend its allies from cyber-attacks.
This is the time to pick up the gauntlet and promote cooperation based on an orderly cyberspace policy that sets out clear principles and joint efforts among nations.
The writer is the director of the Cyber Security Program at The Institute for National Security Studies.