The U.S. is dangerously unprepared to face a full-scale cyber conflict launched by a peer adversary, a report by the military's Defense Science Board (DSB) warns.
The report, released in January, and first reported on by the Washington Post, is based on an 18-month study of the resilience of U.S. military systems to cyberattacks.
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It reflects the perspective of 24-members of a DSB Task Forcem who interviewed more than four-dozen Department of Defense (DoD) officials, members of the U.S. intelligence community, policy makers and security practitioners from private industry, academia and national laboratories.
The conclusions in the report are grim, even by the often Cassandra-like standards of the cyber security industry.
"The benefits to an attacker using cyber exploits are potentially spectacular," the report warneds. "Should the United States find itself in a full-scale conflict with a peer adversary, attacks would be expected to include denial of service, data corruption, supply chain corruption, traitorous insiders, kinetic and related non-kinetic attacks at all altitudes from underwater to space. "
The attacks could cause U.S. guns, missiles, and bombs to fail, misfire or be directed against the country's troops. Supply chains could be disrupted, resulting in critical shortages of food, water and ammunition. "Military Commanders may rapidly lose trust in the information and ability to control U.S. systems and forces," the report noted.
The impact of a full-scale cyber assault on the civilian population would be even greater with the power grid, communications infrastructure, financial networks and fuel distribution infrastructure all getting crippled. "In a short time, food and medicine distribution systems would be ineffective; transportation would fail or become so chaotic as to be useless," the report said.
Much of the problems have to do with the relative lack of readiness of U.S. military networks and critical infrastructure networks to withstand a sustained cyberattack. DoD networks and those belonging to many of its contractors have already been deeply compromised and have sustained "staggering losses" of system design information and other vital information reflecting decades of combat knowledge, the DSB report cautioned.
Many of the networks that the DoD relies on are built on "inherently insecure" architectures and technologies. Many critical systems used by the Pentagon incorporate foreign-built components that could be used by adversaries to spy on and gather information. As an example, the DSB report pointed to a 1970's Soviet operation codenamed Gunman, where Soviet intelligence operatives managed to insert keystroke-logging malware on 16 IBM Selectric typewriters at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.