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Ukraine is now fighting what it calls the largest cyber attack in the country’s history, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says the US Intelligence community “continues to assess what happened there.”

While Austin was clear not to speculate, he did say a cyber attack of this kind is a “play taken out of his playbook.”

He added that the US would respond intensely to any cyber attack on NATO.

“In terms of a response to the cyber attack, if someone attacks the United States of America, then certainly, we will -- we will hold that -- that element responsible or accountable, and -- and at this point, nobody -- you know, we -- we haven't seen that. We have -- we have not been attacked. NATO elements have not been attacked. So we'll leave it at that,” he said.

While details regarding ongoing investigations are typically not available for security reasons, the US is of course experienced when it comes to analyzing the possibility of Russian cyberwarfare.

US Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a press statement prior to a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 16, 2022.

US Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks during a press statement prior to a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 16, 2022.

“Before any attack we'd -- we'd expect to see cyber attacks, false-flag activities and a -- and a -- and a number of others -- increasing rhetoric in the information space, and we're beginning to see more and more of that,” Austin said.

Given that they are by no means restricted to geographical boundaries, many are likely to be conscious of cyber threats to other strategically vital areas in Europe or even the US. What could they involve? Well certainly the first and most obvious one could be a cyber attack on electrical grids to in effect “blind” Ukrainian or NATO forces. Beyond that, there are many possibilities such as a simple “denial of service” attack to intrude upon and shut down computer networks, perhaps even military computers.

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There could even be cyber attacks, jamming or EW actions against specific networks crucial to satellites and weapons systems, a possibility enhanced by the growing extent to which weapons systems are cyber reliant. This is a key reason why US weapons developers have been consistent and vigorous when it comes to “baking in” cyber protections early in the developmental process of weapons systems.

Added to this, the US military has made great progress hardening existing weapons systems against interference. For instance, the US Air Force has for several years now been operating a special office called CROWS, Cyber Resilience Office of Weapons Systems.

The specific purpose of this office is to test, hack and seek to penetrate existing weapons systems in order to identify and correct potential vulnerabilities. The intent here is to build in fixes and protections to better enable weapons to function while under cyber attack. This can pertain to data processing systems analyzing incoming sensor data from drones and satellites to even the integrated computer networks which link fighter jets and armored vehicles on the move.

There certainly does appear to be precedent for this, as many senior US military weapons developers have said the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 was a “wake up” call for the US given Russia’s use of drones, unmanned systems and electronic warfare attacks. There are growing amounts of cyber components to EW information systems and targeting technologies and real-time warzone data transmission, an evolving phenomenon which has only continued to drive the Pentagon’s ongoing push to accelerate cybersecurity and cyberwar technologies.

The Air Force, as part of this, has in recent years stood up special “Cyber Squadrons” tasked with training the force on cyber hygiene and researching new cyber security applications. For example, one evolving technique is to use computer automation to replicate the behavior of a human user online to “lure” and therefore identify a potential intruder. Other innovations include Navy efforts to use cutting edge technology to identify the presence of malware buried into encrypted communications.

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization