Monday, October 17, 2011

U.S. Debated Cyberwarfare in Attack Plan on Libya

Via NY Times -

Just before the American-led strikes against Libya in March, the Obama administration intensely debated whether to open the mission with a new kind of warfare: a cyberoffensive to disrupt and even disable the Qaddafi government’s air-defense system, which threatened allied warplanes.

While the exact techniques under consideration remain classified, the goal would have been to break through the firewalls of the Libyan government’s computer networks to sever military communications links and prevent the early-warning radars from gathering information and relaying it to missile batteries aiming at NATO warplanes.

But administration officials and even some military officers balked, fearing that it might set a precedent for other nations, in particular Russia or China, to carry out such offensives of their own, and questioning whether the attack could be mounted on such short notice. They were also unable to resolve whether the president had the power to proceed with such an attack without informing Congress.

In the end, American officials rejected cyberwarfare and used conventional aircraft, cruise missiles and drones to strike the Libyan air-defense missiles and radars used by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government.

This previously undisclosed debate among a small circle of advisers demonstrates that cyberoffensives are a growing form of warfare. The question the United States faces is whether and when to cross the threshold into overt cyberattacks.


“We don’t want to be the ones who break the glass on this new kind of warfare,” said James Andrew Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he specializes in technology and national security.

That reluctance peaked during planning for the opening salvos of the Libya mission, and it was repeated on a smaller scale several weeks later, when military planners suggested a far narrower computer-network attack to prevent Pakistani radars from spotting helicopters carrying Navy Seal commandos on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2.

Again, officials decided against it. Instead, specially modified, radar-evading Black Hawk helicopters ferried the strike team, and a still-secret stealthy surveillance drone was deployed.

“These cybercapabilities are still like the Ferrari that you keep in the garage and only take out for the big race and not just for a run around town, unless nothing else can get you there,” said one Obama administration official briefed on the discussions.

The debate about a potential cyberattack against Libya was described by more than a half-dozen officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified planning.

In the days ahead of the American-led airstrikes to take down Libya’s integrated air-defense system, a more serious debate considered the military effectiveness — and potential legal complications — of using cyberattacks to blind Libyan radars and missiles.

“They were seriously considered because they could cripple Libya’s air defense and lower the risk to pilots, but it just didn’t pan out,” said a senior Defense Department official.

After a discussion described as thorough and never vituperative, the cyberwarfare proposals were rejected before they reached the senior political levels of the White House.

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