An interesting article from Newfactor that discusses our original DIRT concept from 1996.
Chaos: The Coming Technology War
By Tim McDonald
September 25, 2001
Experts warn that it wouldn’t take much to disrupt and even immobilize the U.S. satellites upon which the country’s military, government and commercial interests are increasingly dependent.
Chances are that you won’t see the next war start live on CNN, as in the 1991 Gulf War. Nor will your early warning signal be the emergency broadcast beep going off on your television or radio. So how will you know it’s started? There will be some clues.
Your pager won’t work. The movie you’re watching on HBO might suddenly go blank while the cable connection seems fine. Or your ATM machine will kick back your debit card for no apparent reason.
In 1998, the Galaxy IV satellite that was orbiting the earth suddenly malfunctioned. About 80 percent of the pagers in the U.S. quit working. Cable and broadcast video feeds also shut down, while credit card authorization networks and other communication systems failed for weeks.
Space: The ‘Irresistible’ Target
The official explanation was that it was simply a malfunction. But, was it? And will it be next time? Only days after the incident, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua ran an article that said, in part:
“For countries that could never win a war by using the methods of tanks and planes, attacking the U.S. space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice.”
It wouldn’t take much to disrupt and even immobilize the U.S. satellites upon which the country’s military, government and commercial interests are increasingly dependent. All that would be needed is a rocket that can reach outer space, with some aiming capability, and a small nuclear warhead.
China easily has such potential. So does Russia. And so do Iran, Iraq and North Korea. And, perhaps scariest of all in the current crisis, so does Pakistan.
A ‘U.S. Crusader’ Virus?
The only thing upon which defense experts agree with respect to information technology and its place in future conflicts is that it will be used somehow, some way. There are an infinite number of possibilities.
Computer viruses are commonplace now, though almost always relatively unsophisticated. They could become more specific, however, and be directed at narrower targets.
For example, a “PLO virus” was developed at Hebrew University in Israel. In Japan, hackers invaded the computerized control system for commuter trains, disrupting major cities for hours. Italian terrorist group the Red Brigade specifically spells out how to take out computer systems and installations in its manifesto.
In Ireland, Sinn Fein supporters posted details of the British army intelligence operations in Northern Ireland on the Internet, and they weren’t even in Ireland when they did so — they were working from the University of Texas at Austin.
Electric power grids, oil and gas pipelines, vital communications systems, sensitive data — they’re all becoming more and more computerized and centralized.
“Thirty years ago, terrorists could not have obtained extraordinary leverage,” said Robert Kupperman, terrorist expert and chief scientist of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. “Today, however, the foci of communications, production and distribution are relatively small in number and highly vulnerable.”
Kupperman made that statement in 1977.
What are we doing about it? The U.S. is preparing itself with a number of measures that range from the subtle to the spectacular. One of the most spectacular is NASA’s Hyper-X project, featuring 12-foot-long, unmanned, air-breathing X-43A “jetscram” aircraft launched from F-15 fighter jets that are capable of hunting down and destroying foreign satellites that threaten ours.
Its targets could be as small as 20-pound “nano-satellites” loaded with sophisticated equipment and capable of jamming U.S. satellite transmissions with electronics or even lasers. Pakistan is only one of the countries working on such technology.
There are other, less spectacular ways that could eventually be more effective. For example, the Federal Computer Incident Response Center plans to revamp a system that automatically sends security patches to civilian agencies, hoping to find a cheaper and easier way to protect systems against malicious viruses.
On another front in the tech war, the National Science Foundation announced this week that it will create a new research program designed to upgrade the basic security level in commercial technology used by government and industry.
“It is a necessity to ensure that future information systems not only behave as expected, but more importantly, continue to produce expected behavior and are not susceptible to subversion,” the NSF said in its announcement.
In addition, Georgetown University and the Terrorism Research Center maintain an information warfare database where incidents of suspected foreign invasions of information systems can be reported.
“Information warfare attacks are occurring with increasing frequency and it is vital that a dynamic resource exists to track their incidence,” the site says.
There is also the chance you may not know about a U.S. response to an act of foreign electronic warfare. A paper by the Terrorism Research Center, headed by Matthew Devost, recommends a digital integrated response team (DIRT).
The idea is for the U.S. to have its own, secret group of information warfare terrorists, sanctioned by executive order and scattered around the country in secret “cells.”
They would constitute a kind of “digital Delta Force,” the paper says — an offensive strike force capable of inflicting chaos on an enemy’s electronic infrastructure. Such attacks would be cloaked in anonymity for security and other reasons.
The paper concludes: “Such a response offers ultimate plausible denial.”