Until not too long ago, offensive cyber operations were considered highly classified operations that were almost forbidden to talk about.
An interesting quote from General Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and the CIA, emphasizes the degree of secrecy surrounding offensive cyber operations: “Even the phrase “offensive cyber operations” was classified. Not what it might mean, or what the targets might be, or what technologies would be involved – merely the phrase itself”.
Since then the situation has changed, and today it is known that many countries around the world carry out offensive cyber operations. The U.S. disclosed its offensive cyber operations against ISIS, and former President Trump disclosed an offensive U.S. cyber operation against Russia before the 2018 midterm elections.
In recent months, a number of senior officials have spoken out on the issue:
– In June, General Paul Nakasone, head of the Cyber Command and the NSA, confirmed that the US assisted Ukraine in carrying out offensive cyber operations against Russia.
– In October, the head of the FBI testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee and said that his agency carries out offensive cyber operations against state and non-state actors. However, he warned that the ability to deter and make America’s adversaries not attack again is limited. It is much more difficult to create deterrence than to hinder their activities.
– In December, General Nakasone said that the command under his leadership carried out defensive and offensive cyber operations (operations called “full spectrum operations”) against “foreign actors” to protect the midterm elections that took place in November this year. According to him, it was a continuous campaign that started before the elections and continued during and after them, until the elections were guaranteed.
These operations are carried out in an approach known in Cyber Command and the Defense Department as “hunt forward” in the framework of which Cyber Command teams are sent to the target countries and nearby countries and carry out operations ahead of time. This is what Cyber Command did in Ukraine, Croatia, and other countries.
Additionally, Cyber Command has recently received over 44 million dollars for “hunt forward” missions within the approved American budget.
In addition, the command received additional powers to carry out offensive cyber operations in response to “active, systematic, and continuous” attacks against the US.
In my research, I’ve explored how offensive cyber operations have evolved from a highly classified and secret topic into something that countries – particularly the United States – talk about publicly.
I also identified possible reasons for this change and the advantages of the disclosure – creating an image of a nation with cyberpower willing to deploy it; Attempts to create deterrence (which, as noted, does not necessarily work), and also the ability to send a message to the other players and influence their behavior.
I wrote about the American cyber aid to Ukraine in the previous post. We will see how the increase in powers and budgets will affect cooperation and how many offensive cyber operations we will see the US carry out in 2024.
Here are some relevant links –