We hear a lot about the threat of cyberwar. But do recent cyber breaches perpetuated by Russia and other adversaries mean we’re already there?

Given the scale and scope of cyber hacks in the last five years, many would argue that there is a global cyberwar afoot.

However, defining the problem is important in order to get to meaningful solutions.

From a military perspective, the Air Force is at war all the time given that adversaries are trying to deliberately affect their missions, Frank Konieczny, the service’s chief technology officer, said at the CyberCon conference in Arlington hosted by Federal Times.

The Air Force, he said, has gone beyond the point of trying to defend the network because defending the entire network is not feasible. The Air Force is now trying to defend missions as opposed to “the network.”

Adversaries are seeking to disrupt missions doing things as simple as disrupting data from sensors, making leaders question the validity of data they are getting. Something as simple as altering the data of air pressure in a tire of a tank could lead officials to take that asset out of battle, which could eventually lead officials to question all data coming in.

Konieczny also noted that the Air Force has shifted to defending what is mission critical and looking at mission levels and cyber operations squadrons. Mission assurance has been the main pillar of Air Force cybersecurity as stated by the previous chief information officer. Trying to develop pinpoints of defense as opposed to defending everything has become the push, Konieczny said.

Others are a bit more careful in using the distinction of “war” to characterize the current cyber environment. “War” is a loaded term, William Carter, deputy director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during the same panel.

“War” has implications for what is expected in terms of response, he said, adding he would like to use the term “cyberwar” to describe the types of activities in cyberspace that warrant a significant response that have the potential to escalate to a military conflict. The activity below that threshold, and more commonly displayed, could be termed strategic competition in cyberspace, which, he contends, doesn’t require thinking in warlike terms but rather draws attention to the act that everyone is constantly competing and strategic equities are always in play and always at risk in cyberspace.

Moreover, the reason it’s important to make this distinction is because if someone committed an act of war against the U.S. in any other domain, they wouldn’t try to indict them through the Justice Department or draw up sanctions; there would be a military response.

The fact that a large-scale cyberattack causing catastrophic harm, loss of life or property damage hasn’t happened in the U.S. could be considered a win on the deterrence front, he said, given adversaries have that capability but have not exercised it yet.

The area where deterrence frameworks need work are all the areas beneath conflict, he said.

In order to have a more holistic, national defense in this new cyber environment, there is a need to exchange ideas and technologies between the private sector and government to better understand the threat space and vulnerabilities, stressed Daniel Smith, vice president and division manager of Cybersecurity Solutions at ManTech.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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