JERUSALEM – Israel’s cyber weapons will eventually replace the pre-emptive strike role played by the Israel Air Force in the 1967 Six-Day War, according to Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Yair Cohen, former commander of Israel’s much-vaunted signal intelligence corps Unit 8200.
Cohen was one of several leading military thinkers who gathered in Jerusalem last week at the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference to discuss the future of warfare.
Cohen predicted that in the future Israel would be able to neutralize enemy weapons systems and units with “a single keystroke.”
Unit 8200, besides serving as the Israeli equivalent to America’s National Security Agency (NSA), is considered one of the breeding grounds for the talent behind Israel’s “start-up nation” society of innovators and entrepreneurs, which most recently made headlines with Google’s $1.3 billion acquisition of the Israeli navigation start-up Waze.
“[Israel has] the potential to be the [world’s] number one, number two or number three cyber superpower,” Cohen said during a conference panel titled “Tomorrow’s Wars: No Longer Science Fiction.”
In addition to Cohen, Israeli panelists included IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Daniel Gold, who won the 2012 Israel Defense Prize for his role in developing the Iron Dome battery to defend Israel against short-range missiles and rockets, and Dr. Ariel Levite, a nonresident senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.
The panel also featured two Americans, Prof. Edward Luttwak, a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and Prof. Michael Walzer, co-editor of the magazine Dissent, contributing editor to The New Republic and professor emeritus of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.
Despite Cohen and Gold’s confidence in the IDF’s advanced technological capabilities, American panelists Luttwak and Walzer argued that future wars will still be decided by infantry.
Based on Israel’s experience fighting Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War and America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Luttwak, the actual trend for wars these days is to begin with the deployment of high-tech weapons like drones, revert to medium-tech weapons such as armor, and eventually employ light infantry to achieve war goals.
Luttwak also expressed reservations about over-spending as well as the political implications in the U.S of over-reliance on new technology, referring specifically to NSA’s recently revealed PRISM surveillance program.
“The U.S. must decide whether to preserve individual liberties or kill three [jihadists],” Luttwak said. “This, I would do with a gun,” he added.
Levite said the world was moving toward a state of constant low-intensity warfare along “physical, cognitive and cyber” dimensions, manifesting itself like “a chronic disease with occasional flare-ups.” Levite’s implication was that given these conditions, countries need to take active measures to defend against attack at all times and to handle large-scale confrontations when they occur.
Middle East Internet usage and cyber threat expert Tal Pavel echoed and elaborated on many of the panel’s points in an interview with JNS.org. Cyber warfare in particular should be considered as an enhancement to physical warfare, not a replacement to it, said Pavel, founder and CEO of Middleeasternet, a research center for Internet and information technology in the Middle East.
The major difficulties with cyber warfare, Pavel explained, are also present with traditional, physical warfare: one has to determine who attacked and how to deter them. The biggest challenge presented by cyber warfare, he said, is that it has made basic wartime questions much more difficult to answer and traditional limitations, such as the distance to a target, meaningless.
During his presentation, Cohen gave a recent example of the problems caused by the difficulty in determining the origin of a cyber attack. In January 2012, Saudi hackers allegedly stole thousands of Israeli credit card numbers and personal details (originally it was claimed that 400,000 were stolen). Some independent Israeli hackers then retaliated by unleashing a cyber counterattack on Saudi credit card holders. But according to Cohen, the initial attack actually did not originate from Saudi Arabia.
Pavel said that in addressing cyber threats, a distinction needs to be made between attacks that only cause cyber damage – defacing websites, for example – and those that can inflict real-world damage by disabling or taking control of computer systems responsible for managing tangible operations.
Pavel explained the distinction as the difference between a hacker attack that takes the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality website off-line and an attack that shut downs the computers that control Tel Aviv’s traffic-light system. One shuts down a website but the other can paralyze a city and cause injuries and fatalities as well as significant financial loss.
Cohen, like Pavel, emphasized the need to distinguish between simple hacker attacks on websites and e-mail accounts and those aimed at bringing down computer systems that manage important infrastructure. Referring to the scope of the challenge facing military planners, Cohen noted that “we are living in a world where five hundred million cyber-attacks occur per second.”
While warfare is rapidly expanding onto new fronts, the consensus among experts at the Israeli Presidential Conference was that the rules of the game largely remain the same.
“The Internet area didn’t invent much,” Pavel told JNS.org. “These problems exist in the physical world.”
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