SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The rise of cyberwar means the United States must rethink how it approaches conflict, and government cooperation and information sharing with the private sector will become indispensable, a leading senator said Saturday.
The vast majority of enemy targets for a cyberattack will be in the commercial world, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum here.
To defend the U.S. in such a war, King said, it will be vital to develop a “relationship of trust” between businesses — particularly companies handling critical infrastructure — and the government, to share information on potential threats and how to stop them.
“We have to have an entirely different kind of thinking about how the interface between government and the private sector works in cybersecurity,” King said. “Cybersecurity starts at the individual desktop. Somebody can do everything right, but if somebody in an engineering firm [who] works for a major defense contractor clicks on a phishing email, we can be in real trouble.”
Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of U.S. Cyber Command, said during the panel private firms can help thwart attacks on critical data and communications infrastructure. He pointed to SpaceX’s provision of thousands of Starlink satellite broadband terminals to Ukraine earlier this year as an example of how that kind of cooperation can work in the face of a combined cyber and conventional attack.
“I don’t think that the Russians had planned for a commercial satellite coming into Ukraine and providing that type of support,” Nakasone said.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Ukraine’s ability to adapt and take advantage of private-sector capabilities has been key to fending off Russia’s effort to conquer their country. He also said the U.S.’s provision of information to Ukraine has made their military more successful.
Cyberwar doesn’t just consist of denial of service attacks to take down critical infrastructure such as electrical grids, King said. It also includes disinformation efforts, which he said may be an even more serious problem.
Kendall said Russia often uses disinformation to influence public opinion, particularly in Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine.
And more Russian influence operations are likely to come as the war in Ukraine continues, Microsoft President Brad Smith said at another panel.
Russia’s strategy for the winter, he said, is to use missile strikes to degrade Ukraine’s power infrastructure and influence operations to degrade public support among Ukraine’s allies — a side of the conflict he said deserves more attention.
“Perhaps the single area where I feel the Russians are the most sophisticated is the combination of not just military operations as we conventionally understand them, but cyber-influence operations,” Smith said. “That’s an issue in the United States, but frankly, it is even a bigger issue in Poland, across Eastern Europe, in Germany. That’s probably where the Russians, one might predict, put their attention.”
To House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the importance of the information domain in Ukraine underscored the Pentagon’s need to invest in protected information systems and space — but also “better” missiles, drones, missile defense and counter-drone capabilities.
“We need to pivot to the asymmetrical warfare that is now happening,” Adam Smith said, noting the Pentagon has been working on that transition for years.
In the U.S., trying to stymie disinformation efforts can be “a very tricky thing,” King said, particularly when trying to safeguard the First Amendment.
King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee that investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, said the solution is not to have “the government stripping information.” Instead, citizens need to develop their media literacy and “become better consumers of information.”
“The Russians didn’t invent divisions in our society,” he continued. “They take cracks, and turn them into Grand Canyons. And that’s a very difficult thing to cope with from a governmental point of view. We have to be more discerning, in terms of information.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.