National Security

Sabotage & Security Risks

By Rana Athar Javed

The pervasive breach of a nation’s power grid, nuclear power plant or cyber-attacks on installations of military and national importance are some of the top risks that a country can face in this increasingly cyber world. Sabotage as defined by Oxford dictionary is an act, which “deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct (something), especially for political or military advantage”. This brings us back to cyber war and how future internal/external security risks will be out of control – whether the new form of technological advantage gives major powers including the US superiority over other nations, and that is likely to continue. The fundamental question however is that given today’s asymmetrical vulnerabilities, how cyber weapon can be used against the most vulnerable nations.

Every country including the US is vulnerable. The US military for instance is “highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks because it is ‘netcentric’, bringing access to databases and information further down into the operation of every imaginable type of military operation”. While the US continue to dominate cyberspace, and prepare battlefields for future wars, extraction of information and sabotage may weaken the government systems of allay countries. The risk is that militant organizations might be violating regularly, and would pose significant challenge to nations that have less advanced system of cyber security.

This defenseless premise is a consistent challenge to national security establishment and needless to say, casts deleterious impact on strategic and intelligence affairs of a government. Most of the attempts to ensure that the current system of security at any installation is foolproof, in fact is a basic technique to show cyber ambiguity to the enemy, and thus assigning a deceptive and unapproachable scenario. Largely, due to changing policies of major powers, which is of a particular importance to single-mindedly focus of sharing technological advancement only within among elite clubs of states.

For the most part, the US, Israel and European countries have managed to put their traditional rivalries aside and substantial coordination and partnership is increased to develop effective systems and software to protect all branches of military/intelligence and nuclear industry – also to destroy and disrupt enemy’s strategic assets.

The Israeli military for instance reveals for the first time that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) “uses cyberspace to gather intelligence, attack enemies and conduct various military operations, the military revealed […] posting on its official website…it engages in cyber warfare for offensive purposes. It also came a week after a new virus was discovered to have attacked Iran. The IDF’s Operations Directorate recently drafted a document defining the purpose and use of cyber warfare for the Israeli military.

According to the document, cyberspace is viewed by the army as another battlefield – like land, sea and airspace…“Professionally speaking, the IDF is fighting consistently and relentlessly in cyberspace, is collecting intelligence and protecting the IDF networks as well,” the army posting said. “When needed, cyberspace is also used to execute attacks and other information operations.” The IDF said that the purpose of operations in cyberspace included “thwarting initiatives by Israel’s enemies to undermine the IDF’s and Israel’s operational freedom” in a wide variety of conflicts. (March 1, 2013: The Jerusalem Post).

This of type of strategic thinking informs the developing nations that if potential adversaries engage in unlimited cyber warfare, they might do more damage to the entire security systems and military installations than effectively invading a country. According to press reports in 2012, the United States and Israel jointly developed a sophisticated computer virus nicknamed Flame that collected intelligence in preparation for cyber-sabotage aimed at slowing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon, according to Western officials with knowledge of the effort.

Few nations other than the US have more of their essential national systems protected by highly advanced systems and thus opening opportunities for an unauthorized penetration by, on behalf, in support of, governments into another nation’s computer or network systems. Application of numerous sabotage/hacking operations serves the purpose of adding, altering and falsifying data or causing suspension of weapon system or network device. Often such operations are conducted under the cover of private/foreign enterprise companies, the sponsors of which benefits from the falsified material, usually being generated to serve their counterintelligence procedures.

The technical superiority is perhaps the main reason that a country such the US is at an advantage to send deep-cover agents to surprise traditional espionage techniques. If consequences can be generated for certain type of destabilizing sabotage operations, the countries facing asymmetrical warfare are vulnerable to corresponding amount of damage to their government systems.

However, with the multilayered implications of cyber warfare, the thinking to limit or control the damage from such operations is problematic. Nations such as China and Russia faced allegations of infiltrating the U.S. electric grid and leaving behind software that could be used to disrupt the system. “The hackers came from China, Russia and other nations and were on a fishing expedition to map out the system”, reported The Wall Street Journal in April 2009. In another incident, (June 2008), the Hatch nuke plant in Georgia was shut down for two days after an engineer loaded a software update for a business network that also rebooted the plant’s power control system.

As issues of security risks have grown in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the incidents of sabotage have also become matter of serious attention. The most common incidents of water pollution, rise in epidemics, complete power grid shut-down etc. are considered as steps to sabotage and breach the security of institutions in countries fighting war on terror.  Noticeably, as much as people fear small arms and bombs, the fear of drones and robots/artificial intelligence is sufficiently affecting the minds of world population. Due to the US drone strikes, the people of FATA region in Pakistan are being withheld against acceptable risk to their lives.

Drawing on the sufferings of people, fighting asymmetrical warfare and protecting power grids and gas pipelines are enormous tasks. That’s where the US and other European countries should form consortium to support Research & Development, and thus building a partnership between Pakistan and the developed nations. Under foreseeable circumstances, such policy design will not only disable the non-state actors, but would also protect the fundamental infrastructures there.