“If we can have a robust public discussion of nuclear weapons why not a robust discussion of cyberstrategy?” says Jim Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Up until now, cyber has been kind of ad hoc. What they’re doing now is saying that this is going to be a normal part of US military operations.”
The US is already engaged in offensive cyberwar. Media reports claim that the US helped develop and deploy the Stuxnet digital worm, which inflicted serious harm on Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
In his most wide-ranging speech to date on cyber warfare Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted at the need for increased offensive capabilities, warning that America “won’t succeed in preventing a cyber attack through improved defenses alone.”
“If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us, to defend this nation when directed by the president,” Mr. Panetta said. “For these kinds of scenarios, the department has developed the capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace.”
But the lack of discussion surrounding offensive cyber capabilities – and a clear US military plan for pursuing them – has been a significant roadblock for US military forces interested in honing those skills, says retired Col. Joe Adams, a former West Point professor who coached the military academy’s cyber team.