The future of high-tech warfare and Israel’s role within it

By Ronen Shnidman/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: On May 31, 2001, the IDF's Combat Engineering Corps conducts training in the southern part of Israel, in order to strengthen the security grip on one of the country's largest land borders. Several experts at the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference agreed that even as technology grows by leaps and bounds and cyber warfare becomes a more realistic possibility, the wars of the future will still be decided by infantry. Credit: Israel Defense Forces.

JERUSALEM—As technology grows by leaps and bounds, leading thinkers gathered last week at the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference to discuss the future of warfare. Israel’s cyber weapons will eventually replace the pre-emptive strike role the Israel Air Force famously played in the 1967 Six Day War, according to Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Yair Cohen, former commander of Israel’s much-vaunted signal intelligence corps Unit 8200.

Cohen predicted that in the future, Israel would be able to neutralize enemy weapons systems and units with “a single keystroke.” Unit 8200, besides serving as the Israeli equivalent to the America’s National Security Agency (NSA), is also considered one of the breeding grounds for the talent behind Israel’s “start-up nation” society of innovators and entrepreneurs, which most recently made headlines with Google’s $1.3 billion acquisition of the Israeli navigation start-up Waze. 

“[Israel has] the potential to be the [world’s] number one, number two or number three cyber superpower,” Cohen said during the June 19 Presidential Conference panel titled “Tomorrow’s Wars—No Longer Science Fiction.”

Besides for Cohen, Israeli panelists included IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Daniel Gold, who won the 2012 Israel Defense Prize for his role in developing the Iron Dome battery to defend Israel against short-range missiles and rockets, and Dr. Ariel Levite, a nonresident senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. The panel also featured two Americans, Prof. Edward Luttwak, a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington, DC, and Prof. Michael Walzer, co-editor of the magazine Dissent and contributing editor to The New Republic as well as Professor Emeritus of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

Despite Cohen and Gold’s presentations of the IDF’s advanced technological capabilities, American panelists Luttwak and Walzer agreed that wars—even in the future—will still be decided by infantry. Luttwak stated that based on Israel’s experience fighting Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the actual trend for wars these days is to begin with the deployment of high-tech weapons like drones, then revert to medium-tech weapons such as armor, and eventually employ light infantry to achieve war goals. Luttwak also expressed reservations about over-spending and the political implications of over-reliance on new technology in the U.S., with particular reference to the NSA’s recently revealed PRISM surveillance program.

“The U.S. must decided whether to preserve individual liberties or kill three Mahmouds,” Luttwak said. “This, I would do with a gun,” he added.

During the panel, Levite predicted that the world was moving towards a state of constant low-intensity warfare along “physical, cognitive and cyber” dimensions. He stated that warfare was becoming like “a chronic disease with occasional flare-ups.” Levite’s implication was that amid these conditions, countries need to take active measures to defend against attack at all times and to handle large-scale confrontations when they occur.

Middle East Internet usage and cyber threat expert Tal Pavel echoed and elaborated on many of the panel’s points in an interview with JNS.org. Cyber warfare in particular should be considered as an enhancement to physical warfare, not a replacement to it, said Pavel, founder and CEO of Middleeasternet, a consultancy that monitors and researches the Internet and cyber threats in the Middle East and the Islamic world.

The major difficulties with cyber warfare, Pavel explained, are also present with traditional, physical warfare—one has to determine who attacked and how to deter them. The change brought by cyber warfare, he said, is its ability to make basic wartime questions incredibly difficult to answer and traditional limitations, such as the distance to a target, meaningless.

During his presentation, Cohen gave a recent example of the problems caused by the difficulty in determining the origin of a cyber attack. In January 2012, Saudi hackers allegedly stole thousands of Israeli credit card numbers and personal details (originally it was claimed that 400,000 were stolen). Some independent Israeli hackers then retaliated by unleashing a cyber counterattack on Saudi credit card holders. But according to Cohen, the initial attack actually did not originate from Saudi Arabia.

Pavel told JNS.org a distinction needs to be made when addressing cyber threats, between attacks that only cause cyber damage, such as defacing websites, and cyber attacks that can cause real-world damage by disabling or taking control of computer systems responsible for managing tangible operations. Pavel explained the distinction as the difference of a hacker attack that takes the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality website off-line, and an attack that shut downs the computers that control Tel Aviv’s traffic light system. One shuts down a website, but the other can paralyze the city and can cause physical injuries and fatalities as well as significant financial losses.

Cohen, like Pavel, on the panel emphasized the need to distinguish between simple hacker attacks on websites and email accounts, and those aimed at bringing down computer systems that manage important infrastructure. Cohen presented the vast size of this high-tech problem, saying that the IDF estimates that on average “500 million cyber attacks take place per second.”

But while warfare is rapidly expanding onto new fronts, the consensus among experts at the Israeli Presidential Conference was that the rules of the game largely remain the same.

“The Internet area didn’t invent much,” Pavel told JNS.org. “These problems exist in the physical world.”

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Posted on June 24, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel.