The inevitable blowback to high-tech warfare

Walter Pincus
Reporter October 15, 2012

Blowback is defined as “an unforeseen and unwanted effect, result, or set of repercussions,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Are some modern military techniques first employed by the United States coming back to haunt us? It would not be the first time.

In a speech Thursday on cybersecurity, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta described as “probably the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date” the Shamoon computer virus that in August virtually destroyed 30,000 computers belonging to the Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco.

Did Panetta limit his description in his talk before the Business Executives for National Security in New York to “the private sector” because he knows of the major cyberattacks against foreign governments? What crossed my mind was the Stuxnet virus, which has been described as a U.S.-Israeli collaboration that, beginning in 2009 and for at least a year, affected software associated with Iran’s nuclear program. In February, the Iranian Fars News Agency quoted a Tehran intelligence officer as saying that 16,000 computers in Iran had been infected by Stuxnet.

Earlier, there was Flame, another intelligence-gathering virus that focused on Iranian and other Middle Eastern computers. International computer security companies reported that Flame had some of the same characteristics as Stuxnet and apparently the same U.S.-Israeli origin.

Should we be surprised that Iran may have been behind the attacks on Aramco and probes of U.S. banks?

On Oct. 6, an Israeli F-16 shot down a drone that had flown in from the Mediterranean Sea and over the Negev desert near Dimona, site of Israel’s secret nuclear weapons facility.

Five days later, hours before Panetta’s speech, Hasan Nasrallah, secretary general of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, confirmed that his organization had launched the drone it had assembled from Iranian manufactured parts.

Two days ago, the London-based Sunday Times reported that the Hezbollah drone spent nearly three hours in the air sending back videos to Lebanon of Israel Defense Forces bases and perhaps Dimona before being shot down.

Nasrallah has made it clear that his use of drones isn’t over. “This flight was not our first, will not be our last, and we give assurances we can reach any point we want. We have the right to dispatch recon planes over occupied Palestine at any time,” he said Saturday.

In short, while armed drones have for years been a growing U.S. military and CIA weapon of choice in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, other countries have been quietly but quickly getting into the game.

The United States paved the way, using drones in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the Vietnam War. Israel had joined in by the 1973 Yom Kippur War, using drones as decoys to confuse Syrian radar as well as for surveillance.

Rumors of a stealth U.S. drone were confirmed in December when Iran showed a video of an RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone. Iranian officials said they had captured the drone 140 miles inside their borders.

Tehran already had a bustling drone production program, even publicizing in January a new model that it said could fly at 10,000 feet for two hours and carry an 11-pound payload.

Iran is one of many countries in the business. A Jan. 3 Congressional Research Service report noted that last year there were 680 drone programs worldwide, up from 105 in 2005. The United States has about 7,000 drones.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is looking toward developing drones as possible replacements for strategic bombers and eventually fighter aircraft.

And there are even smaller ones under development, according to Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution. He described to ABC News in March a robotic drone with munitions “about the size of a rolled-up magazine.”

“A soldier can shoot it off, it flies, observes and then . . . it’s going to turn into a little cruise missile and fly into the target,” he said.

So what should the United States expect in the wake of all these American military innovations? Prepare to defend against others doing the same thing.

In New York City, Panetta called the Internet “a new terrain for warfare.” He also described it as “a battlefield of the future where adversaries can seek to do harm to our country, to our economy and to our citizens.”

It has already become that battlefield, but with little public debate because the United States has been taking the fight to our enemies wrapped in secrecy.

The administration complains about the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians hacking into U.S. computer networks without noting what U.S. electronic warriors are doing.

Panetta said that the Pentagon is spending $3 billion a year on cybersecurity “to retain that cutting-edge capability in the field” and invest “in skilled cyberwarriors needed to conduct operations in cyberspace.”

Translation: preparing to go on the offense.

Preemption was the George W. Bush administration’s word, and it involved bombs and boots on the ground. Panetta called it “developing the capability to conduct effective [cyber] operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace.”

How prepared is the American public for the inevitable blowback?

Just what can be done about this remote-control warfare?

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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