Monday, March 26, 2018

NATO Confronts the Article 5 Trigger in the Age of Cyber Warfare

by Nomad

In the face of Russian cyber attacks, the 29 members of the NATO are searching for solutions and answers. How can the alliance maintain its policy of collective defense against this new type of warfare? What is the appropriate response to Russian asymmetrical warfare without the potential for a runaway scenario? And most importantly, will the American president be willing to provide the kind of leadership that is needed to deal with this threat?

Today, after weeks of sending mixed messages, President Trump finally took some kind of counter-measures against Russian operations. By ordering the expulsion of some 60 Russians, Trump has joined with western allies in response to Russia’s alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.

While supporters of the president may describe today's actions as "tough," it should be remembered that they come in response to an assassination attempt and not as a result of Putin's attempts to influence- through cyber warfare- the outcome of the US elections.

Despite Trump's own expressed doubts about Russian hacking, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a series of Russian organizations and individuals for interference in the 2016 presidential election and other “malicious cyberattacks.”

A Trigger Against Asymmetric Activity

At the same time, NATO members are struggling to find the appropriate response to aggressive cyber warfare.

One of the mainstays of NATO has always been the provision for collective defense as outlines of Article 5 of the charter. An attack on one nation would- at least, in theory- trigger a collective response from all member nations.

However, the alliance's charter was written in the aftermath of WWII in the age of conventional weapons and the dawn of nuclear weapons. The asymmetry of cyber-warfare was, of course, never reckoned for. (The closest comparison would be acts of covert sabotage, blowing up bridges, demolishing train lines etc.)

The idea that an enemy nation could have the ability to seize access and potentially destroy another nation's power grid and critical infrastructure sectors is certainly something that should be taken seriously. The possibility of shutting down power to the entire Eastern seaboard is no longer a sci-fi fantasy. 

In 2015, the Strategic Communication -Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE) was asked to conduct a study on how social media has been transformed into a weapon of hybrid warfare. The conclusions should have been a wake-up call for all member nations. Yet three years later, NATO continues to grapple with the subject.

This is not a new threat at all. In March 2017, Nomadic Politics posted a three-part series on NATO awareness of Russian attempt to subvert the West through the Internet.

Since before 2014, NATO has recognized the threat of Russian cyber warfare. It understood the plan to manipulate public opinion by social media. According to a NATO study, the chief novelty of the current type of warfare, the weaponization of online media, is both continuously ongoing and hard to detect. The strategy is so robust due to the fact that it is so difficult to identify the source.
In September of that year, NATO adopted an enhanced policy and action plan on cyber defense. One of the main points of agreement has been the recognition that cyberspace can be a battleground ("operational domain") equal to air, land and sea.

In this way, the Alliance may better protect the common defense and focus on military planning, managing resources, skills, capabilities and coordinating decisions.
That was a step forward in thinking perhaps but it seemed extremely was short on details.
How does a nation counter an aggressive cyber assault? How does one identify the source, whether state-sponsored or from an independent hacking group?
Those questions remained unanswered, allowing Putin to carry out probably his most successful operation of his career.

Searching for the Appropriate Collective Response

In recent days, US General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of NATO forces in Europe, told a US Senate committee that alliance was attempting to a new understanding of what would be a trigger for Article 5 in the cyber assault. 

Scaparrotti said that NATO leaders have agreed in principle that a cyber attack on any one member state could trigger Article 5. That theoretical agreement "recognizes the difficulty in indirect or asymmetric activity that Russia is practicing, activities below the level of conflict."

Taking the matter seriously is a good first step. That specific understanding between NATO nations, the general explained, would allow "greater agility, greater flexibility in determining how to respond.”  
But what would be the appropriate collective response to major cyber-attack?

the United States, Britain, Germany, Norway, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands are drawing up cyber warfare principles to guide their militaries on what justifies deploying cyber attack weapons more broadly, aiming for agreement by early 2019.
The precise nature of  NATO cyber attack weapons is, naturally, shrouded in mystery but it's not difficult to speculate about their capabilities.
Such offensive weapons could be as simple as computer code to take down websites or shut down IT systems. Or it could be a much more robust approach, such as dismantling or limiting access to the Internet. It could - and probably would- go well beyond that. The people who know the details are not telling.

For Putin, the advantage of cyber-warfare is that it provokes no response. Once there is a price to pay, the advantage disappears. However, it would also necessarily mean an escalation in the conflict.
There's also an issue with the optics.
In Europe, the issue of deploying malware is sensitive because democratic governments do not want to be seen to be using the same tactics as an authoritarian regime. Commanders and experts have focused on defending their networks and blocking attempts at malicious manipulation of data.
Since it was established in 1949, the main source of leadership in NATO has been the US. In the past, its resolve and determination, as well as its ability to coordinate the 29 members into a workable alliance provided a highly successful counter to Soviet aggression.

Today, with Trump at the helm, that leadership can no longer be taken as a given.