WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military's successful use of cyberattacks against the Islamic State extremist group makes the Pentagon likely to carry out similar operations with greater frequency, according to current and former U.S. defense officials.
The cyberoffensive against the Islamic State was a first, and it included the creation of a unit named Joint Task Force Ares. It focused on destroying or disrupting computer networks used by the militant group to recruit fighters and communicate inside the organization. Such weapons are more commonly associated with U.S. intelligence agencies, but they were brought into the open in 2016 after then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pressured U.S. Cyber Command to become more involved in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.
The move sparked debate in the U.S. government over whether American allies would object to the military's interfering with computer networks abroad, The Washington Post reported in May. Some intelligence officials argued that using such weapons in other countries could jeopardize the cooperation of international partners on which U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies depend.
But the cyberattacks were approved and launched anyway, and the campaign recently received the full endorsement of Army Gen. Raymond Thomas III, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Thomas, speaking Wednesday to Army officers at a conference in northern Virginia, said the efforts of Joint Task Force Ares -- combined with those of elite Special Operations troops, other elements of Cyber Command, the intelligence agencies and international partners -- produced "an operation which provided devastating effects on the adversary."
When combined with traditional military operations, Thomas said, the cyberstrikes culminated "in the kinetic destruction of that adversary on an epic scale." He argued that the military can "only achieve exquisite effects like this" with a task force that combines a variety of capabilities, including cyberweapons.
"We should be conducting operations like this continuously in a campaign," Thomas said. "We are not there yet, but we are trending positively in that direction, more every day."
Thomas did not describe the operation in further detail. His spokesman, Navy Capt. Jason Salata, said he could not expand on the comments because of the operation's sensitivity.
In May, Adm. Michael Rogers, who oversees Cyber Command, told the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities that he created Joint Task Force Ares to coordinate the efforts of Cyber Command with other U.S. forces in the fight against the Islamic State.
As part of the campaign, Cyber Command obtained the passwords for a number of Islamic State administrator accounts and then used them to access the accounts, change the passwords, shut out the group's propaganda specialists and delete content such as the militants' battlefield videos.
Beginning about 13 months ago, officials said, personnel at Cyber Command's headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., took a leading role in the operation, though it is unclear how they integrated with Special Operations Command or what that force's role was.
Thomas' support for cyberoperations is an encouraging sign, signaling the military has overcome concerns within the intelligence community, said Eric Rosenbach, a cyberwarfare expert who served as Carter's chief of staff during his tenure overseeing the Pentagon.
"It's essential for the United States to use offensive cyberoperations in a smart way against ISIS and other terrorist organizations because those organizations are so connected to the information environment," Rosenbach said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
The mission Thomas described sounded like "exactly the type of operation that we should be doing," Rosenbach said. Cyber Command, he added, will be more effective if it remains agile like Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command, the shadowy force that handles the military's most sensitive missions.
"This was always our vision for Cybercom," said Rosenbach, now co-director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "We need a Cyber Command that is aggressive, dynamic and doesn't think about cyber from the Cold War perspective of nuclear weapons."
A spokesman for Cyber Command, Masao Doi, indicated similar operations could occur in the future, saying Cyber Command through its campaign against the Islamic State learned how to integrate its specialized capabilities within a broader military campaign. And, he noted, "We do not anticipate that requirement diminishing now or in the future."
James Lewis, who studies the intersection of warfare and the Internet for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted a "wrestle for control" of cyber resources in the future.
"My concern," he said, "is that Special Operations Command is very much in the anti-jihad campaign, and that may not be the strategic threat. ... This isn't the only thing Cyber Command needs to do."
Information for this article was contributed by Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post.
A Section on 12/17/2017
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