As the US moves toward intervention in Syria, blossoming American cyber capabilities are getting a hard look as a solution to one of the more difficult military problems: the Syrian air defense network. But much of the uncertainty that has plagued the use of cyber — both the legal concerns and the lack of verification for the effectiveness of attacks — is likely to limit its use in a conflict.
Though more a cobbled-together mass than a lean, precise system, the Syrian air defense network is far more advanced than what the US has confronted in any recent operation. The network, mostly composed of Russian hardware, is thought to pose a legitimate risk to aircraft. It remains one of the central concerns for military planners because a conflict is likely to be largely composed of an air campaign with little ground involvement.
Cyber strikes against missile batteries or radar installations have been possible for years, according to sources, but concerns about validating the effectiveness of a strike have limited their implementation into commanders’ plans.
Gen. William Shelton, the chief of Air Force Space Command who oversees the branch’s cyber capabilities, described the problem to reporters last year.
“When you develop a kinetic weapon, you do extensive testing to develop a probability of kill with that particular weapon,” Shelton said. “We don’t have that same assurance yet with cyber capabilities. There’s a little bit of a decision here on the part of combatant commanders as to how much he or she is willing to rely upon that particular objective being accomplished by a cyber capability.”
That ability to provide an evaluation of the effectiveness of a tool, or “battle damage assessment” in military speak, hasn’t progressed very far, said Jeff Moulton, a researcher with Gerogia Tech Research Institute.
“There’s very little that we can do, very little assurance that we can provide that a non-kinetic has had the desired effect,” he said.
Without confidence that a target has been eliminated — something that is fairly obvious in the case of kinetic weapons because of the crater left behind — commanders are hesitant to push forward with cyber attacks.
But there’s another problem: Once a cyber capability is used, it is usually discovered and remedied, with an adversary’s other equipment receiving prophylactic treatment and the ability to reuse the cyber weapon nonexistent.
“Cyber exploits are disposable,” Moulton said. “It’s not entirely a question of can you do it, it’s whether you want to.”
The only way to avoid that problem is to launch an attack that isn’t detected by an adversary, likely a temporary disabling of a system that might be confused for a power outage or something equally innocuous.
But because of the concerns about verifying the effectiveness of an attack, using expensive aircraft and risking American lives might be ill-advised. Instead, Moulton suggested that maybe drones do have a purpose in this environment: as a testing tool.
“You send in a drone or some other less valued asset, use it as a decoy,” he said.
Complicating matters even further, the US has been hesitant to use cyber weapons extensively for fear of setting a precedent for future combat. Cyber weapons were discussed for the Libya campaign, only to be turned down.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t smaller applications where cyber might still be used, whether to disrupt Syrian intelligence gathering or otherwise tamper with systems.
If a cyber weapon can be used where there isn’t a pilot’s life at risk, a more targeted area, cyber could play a role, said a former senior government official. “At present it might be more likely to be used for a stand-alone covert op, rather than one on which a whole campaign hinges.”
But the former official said that when it comes to air defense, bombing targets or using cruise missiles remains far more likely.
“Cyber disablement may be less risky for a short-term disablement, but physical destruction is less reversible,” the former official said. “That might make it more appropriate if you want to establish, say, an enduring no-fly zone.”