19FortyFive asked leading experts to comment on the state of play between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to tensions in cyberspace: The next time Netflix suffers an outage or Google searches aren’t working, it might just be Russian hackers at work. The United States and Russia could already be engaged in a very secret war – one that began even before the Kremlin launched its unprovoked and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine last February.
In fact, Russia’s failure to take down Ukrainian computer networks, despite the massive cyber attack that was launched, was likely due to the help Kyiv received from the United States. According to an exclusive report from the BBC this week, a small U.S. military team had been deployed to help Ukraine prepare for such an online attack that was expected to come even before the first tanks or troops rolled across the frontier.
The American cyber specialists helped detect Russian online – and it wasn’t the first time that Kyiv had been subjected to such attacks. Since 2014, Ukraine had witnessed firsthand some of the most significant cyber attacks to date – including one in which a power station was switched off remotely in the dead of the 2015 winter.
The War Online
It isn’t just in Ukraine where U.S. Cyber Command is now working with allies and partners. Since 2018, U.S. military operators have been deployed to some 20 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific region.
The fact that the U.S. is waging such a fight online shouldn’t come as a surprise said Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland. Though he has no knowledge of any such tactical activities, he told 19FortyFive, “The same would be said of any major state. There are signals to collect, data to harvest, methods to study – it will keep analysts busy re-writing the textbooks for years.”
The role that cyber could play in future conflicts can’t be overstated – especially as it can be conducted from thousands of miles away, yet result in considerable devastation.
“Historically the U.S. has done a great job of figuring out how to fight the last war, but this is the opportunity to find out how well the theories would play out in the next,” Purtilo added. “Today Ukraine is test driving a lot of tactics and technology derived from U.S. training, so I hope to heck we’re there getting full value from their experiences. And it is fair game too.”
Russia vs. America: Revealing Details of the Secret Battlespace
What is also notable is how cyber is becoming the second “secret war.” The fact that the BBC was able to put a spotlight on Cyber Command and offer a peak into its inner workers is also notable.
“It’s fascinating to see the inner workings of the U.S Cyber Command and the evolution of a process that, until fairly recently, hasn’t been especially common in conventional espionage,” explained technology industry analyst Charles King of Pund-IT. “As the world’s leading developer of leading-edge computing systems and other high-tech products, it has always seemed odd to me that the U.S. hasn’t taken a higher profile position if efforts like their work in Ukraine – providing expertise and experience that has helped a key ally fend off a much larger enemy with far greater resources.”
This also sheds light on cyber in a positive way. Public perception of the U.S. government’s and U.S. military’s online campaigns has largely been quite negative. This could put the importance of those efforts in a more positive light.
“Previous projects by the NSA and other U.S. agencies that resulted in widespread data harvesting and unwarranted intrusions badly stained and embarrassed those organizations,” King told 19FortyFive. “This report suggests that there has been a significant effort to find a better and more balanced approach that measurably benefits the U.S. and its allies, and is effectively thwarting their enemies and antagonists. In retrospect, the decision to unite the military’s Cyber Command and the National Security Agency under General Paul Nakasone appears to have been particularly astute.”
This can also provide Americans with a sense of why it is important to engage in cyberspace. For one, the concept of a national border is more nebulous in cyber, so the U.S. can move in that space and position assets in a lot of electronic ways that wouldn’t be the same as moving in an armored division.
“In any case, I think we can all see the merits of the multi-domain view of battle space management since Russia is getting its clock cleaned,” noted Purtilo.
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.