The Pentagon is expected to declare that cyber-attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure can amount to an “act of war,” and can be responded to in a military fashion, according to a Tuesday report in the Wall Street Journal.The move is notable because it’s the first time that the U.S. has said that it could respond to hackers with traditional military force, according to the Journal.
In part, the Pentagon intends its plan as a warning to potential adversaries of the consequences of attacking the U.S. in this way. “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks,” said a military official.
Recent attacks on the Pentagon’s own systems–as well as the sabotaging of Iran’s nuclear program via the Stuxnet computer worm–have given new urgency to U.S. efforts to develop a more formalized approach to cyber attacks. A key moment occurred in 2008, when at least one U.S. military computer system was penetrated. This weekend Lockheed Martin, a major military contractor, acknowledged that it had been the victim of an infiltration, while playing down its impact.
The Obama administration did mention this position a couple of weeks ago when policy officials unveiled the administration’s cybersecurity strategy. But they didn’t give many more details.
Questions abound about how U.S. officials can accurately pinpoint just who exactly is behind such attacks, and when attacks are severe enough to warrant a traditional military response.
The Journal article notes that these questions have been in dispute at the Pentagon itself. One idea that’s gaining traction is that a traditional military response would be justifiable if a cyber attack results in a similar level of destruction that a traditional physical attack would wreak.
A government-sponsored report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission says that China’s People’s Liberation Army has its own cadre of unofficial hackers, but the report also says that the Chinese army leadership’s thinking on cyber attacks is that they’re meant to be pre-emptive. That is, the leadership sees such attacks as a way to strategically disable the enemy before traditional warfare begins.