Reports have surfaced in the international media over the past week regarding a computer virus that has infiltrated computers at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant. It has been claimed that the deadly Stuxnet virus has infected computers at the plant, which has damaged some of the reactors and delayed the program of loading enriched nuclear fuel into the reactor.
Almost simultaneous to these reports, were the claims that the Israeli secret service was involved in creating the virus and infecting the Iranian computers. The claims allege that the virus was actually intended for the Natanz plant, which is considered to have a higher risk of producing nuclear bombs. In addition, there have been assertions that the Israelis have infiltrated the supply chain for the Iranian nuclear program, and have succeeded in supplying faulty hardware for the centrifuges. The result of this is that up to 3,000 centrifuges at Bushehr have been damaged. All of this has not sufficiently affected the nuclear plant to prevent the continued enrichment of uranium, but it has certainly caused a setback to Iran’s nuclear plans.
The reports suggest that this is a new development in the conflict between Israel and those Arab and Muslim countries seeking her destruction. While the world has focused on possible military options available to Israel to destroy the Iranian nuclear threat, it would seem as if the Israelis have been seeking out different solutions in an attempt to catch the Iranians off-guard. But how new is the idea of cyber or electronic warfare? Is it really a new development, or is this something that has been around for a while?
According to the New York Times, the unit in the Israel Defence Force (IDF) which is responsible for the creation of the Stuxnet virus is the 8200 unit (known in Hebrew as “shmone matayim” or eight two hundred). This is the Central Intelligence Gathering Unit of the Intelligence Corps, and is responsible for collection of signal intelligence and code decryption. This unit has been around for many years – since before the Six Day War – even though the intelligence-gathering was probably less sophisticated or hi-tech in the earlier years. This unit now oversees a dedicated unit which engages in defensive and offensive digital warfare. This is only one small part of a central pillar in IDF strategy to vigorously pursue all aspects of cyber and electronic warfare. The pursuit of options for sabotaging the core computers of foes like Iran, along with mechanisms to protect its own sensitive systems, were unveiled last year by the military intelligence chief, Major-General Amos Yadlin. Even though these public statements are new and recent, the work being done by units dedicated to digital warfare is certainly not.
A recent article in the Jerusalem Post presented details of a unit in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), the Sky Crows Squadron. This is the cyber warfare unit of the IAF that uses intelligence for two main purposes. The first is to block enemy communications and the second is to disrupt enemy radar systems. Probably the most well-known of the Crows’ successes was the 2007 attack on the nascent Syrian nuclear reactor along the Euphrates River. The IAF F-15I aircraft probably could not have entered Syrian airspace and successfully dropped their payloads on Syrian radar installations and on the nuclear reactor itself, were it not for the fact that the Crows had succeeded in deactivating all Syrian air defence systems. All of this was achieved without sustaining as much as a scratch on an IAF aeroplane. During the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the unit was again activated but this time mostly to break into Palestinian and Lebanese TV and radio channels to push anti-Hamas and anti-Hezbollah propaganda.
During 2010, the Sky Crows Squadron will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. The IAF has been engaging in electronic warfare for quite some time already. This is one of the ways that the IDF feels that it will be able to maintain its military advantage in the Middle East, and around the world. This is particularly true during an era of an unprecedented military build-up in the region. This is best epitomised by the recent $60bn arms deal to Saudi Arabia, and the construction of the Iranian nuclear reactors. Israel is often unable to spend the same sums of money spent by her adversaries, and the qualitative military edge is what allows Israel to create its ultimate advantage.
The technological changes in our world have created an ideal operating environment that play to Israel’s strengths. Communications and computer networking have become the core of our work and social worlds, and also form the backbone of military attack and defence systems. Israel is the country which was first to create a firewall to protect computer networks. Having access to brains that can protect networks from all manner of attack also means having the ability to create attacks that can overcome these protections. This technological capability is being nurtured and developed in the next generation of IDF soldiers, starting from a very young age. Israeli schools run a wide number of programs to develop computer and technology skills in children to ensure that the IDF has a wide choice of top-notch resources to call upon for its needs in the foreseeable future.
The Iranians have meanwhile predictably announced that a computer virus was not to blame for the delays at its reactors. No nation would wish to admit to having its secret installations infiltrated in such a blatant way. In an attempt to avoid further embarrassment, an announcement was issued that arrests have been made of people who are suspected to have been involved. Israel seems well positioned to take advantage of the change in the nature of military conflict. Military strength was once measured in terms of numbers of aircraft, soldiers, tanks and missiles. Military attacks were once in the form of bombs launched and weapons fired. Although this has not completely gone away, it is clear that the rules of the game are changing.
If Iran is continuously scanning its airspace in the belief that clear skies mean the nuclear reactors are safe, it seems as if it may be looking in the wrong place for the source of the real danger. Electronic warfare is set to become the military playground of the future.