Policy: Technology

In cyberwar, an active defense beats criminal indictments

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,National Security,China,Cybersecurity,Technology

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Monday announcement of the indictment of five People's Liberation Army officers was meant to tell China, "enough is enough" on its massive cyberespionage campaign against the United States.

China’s reaction – a diplomatic harrumph – didn’t indicate that the indictments were taken at all seriously.

Nor should they be. For at least a decade, China has been engaged in the most massive and far-reaching of all cyberespionage campaigns against the United States. From it, the Chinese have benefitted in a variety of ways, including bypassing expensive research on military systems for stealth aircraft and gaining intelligence on how many American assets – from financial markets to the power grid – work.

There is no more reason to expect China will repent and change its ways after these indictments than there was when President Obama imposed economic sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle. The Russians shrugged the sanctions off as the diplomatic flatulence they were. The indictments announced by Holder will have an equal effect on China, namely none at all. They won't stop or even reduce China's cyberespionage program against the U.S. because it's reaping too much benefit from it and because the indictments are another empty gesture by the nation it once labeled a paper tiger.

With thousands of attempts each day, China's cyberespionage operations are trying to penetrate American defense, intelligence, financial and electric power networks, among other targets. And they are too often successful. Chinese cyberespionage has resulted in their theft of much of the secret design data for the F-35 fighter, which have already been observed in the newest version of China's J-20 stealth fighter, which looks a whole lot like the F-35. (It now sports a new engine nozzle design, one of the many features evidently stolen from the American design.)

So why these indictments and why now? The answer to that question must be political, because there is nothing the Obama administration does that isn't. Among the victims of the Chinese operation are Westinghouse Electric, U.S. Steel, SolarWorld, United Steel Workers Union, Allegheny Technologies Inc. and Alcoa. Were the indictments issued because a campaign donor -- perhaps a generous and friendly union -- demanded them?

The indictments are another prime example of the Obama administration's feckless approach to foreign policy and defense. Time after time -- be it a "red line" on Syria, sanctions against Russian oligarchs or anything else which could have smacked of independent and strong American action -- the administration has chosen to do something that will have no effect. Ineffectiveness is a choice and, when repeated often enough, becomes a policy. If Holder wanted to send a message that “enough is enough” he couldn't have done worse. And neither could the president.

U.S. cyberwarriors are still developing their offensive operational doctrine. Why not decide on a doctrine that -- whenever a cyberspy is detected trying to get access to an American defense or intelligence system -- automatically sends a destructive computer worm into his server? There would be no need to announce this as a strategy. The word would get out among China’s and other nations' cyberespionage teams as quickly as they began to suffer the impacts of American response.

Even at their best, U.S. cyberwarriors have to play a defensive game. But they can and should be postured to pose an active defense, not an entirely passive one. This would be a strategy that could have a significant deterrent effect, not a risible action intended to fail.

There is a great asymmetry in cyber war. It’s relatively cheap to mount an offense, and very expensive to defend effectively. That can be turned around.

The paper tiger needs to sharpen its cyberclaws.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.

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