Cyber warfare may sound like something out of science fiction, but it is an increasingly important aspect of modern conflict. It refers essentially to politically-motivated hacking; one nation-state penetrating another’s computers or networks for sabotage or espionage purposes. William J Lynn, the US Deputy Secretary of Defence, has said that the Pentagon has “formally recognised cyberspace as a new domain in warfare”, equally important to military operations as “land, sea, air and space”.
Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that the Israeli military has made cyber warfare a key priority for the next five years. The military intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, is reported to have allocated a £320m budget to the cyber programme.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, a leading Israeli newspaper, the state is facing a shortage of “cyber-combat troops” for its Intelligence Corps Unit 2000, and is planning to recruit from the Jewish Diaspora. The newspaper quotes a top officer at the Manpower Directorate: “It has become clear that the demand for soldiers in this field is growing, which is why we’re searching for solutions not only in Israel but abroad as well.”
Military sources have dismissed the idea that they are searching for cyber-warriors abroad, noting that every Israeli 18 year old is conscripted to three years of military service, giving the army a large pool to choose from. While dismissing the foreign recruitment idea as “far-fetched”, Major General Isaac Ben Israel, one of the country’s leading experts in cyber warfare, confirmed that “cyber readiness is one of the new pillars in our plan, including both defence and offence”.
It is generally acknowledged that General Israel was the mastermind behind a 2007 air strike that destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility. The attack was only possible because Syrian air defence systems were hacked and disabled minutes beforehand. Nor was this the only cyber-attack aimed at nuclear programmes in recent years. In 2010, the Stuxnet computer worm targeted the Iranian nuclear programme, in what was widely thought to be a joint US-Israeli attack. One of the appeals of cyber war is that it is difficult to find definitive proof of responsibility.
Given that Israel currently sees Iran and its nuclear programme as its biggest threat, it seems obvious that Iran will be the main target of Israel’s beefed-up cyber operation. It is a means of waging war without the economic costs and loss of life associated with a physical conflict. And Iran is well aware of the threat. Since the Stuxnet attack, the country has been concentrating on improving its cyber capabilities. While Iran still can’t match the US or Israel, US security sources have said they are surprised at how quickly the government in Tehran has developed its capability. General Israel was explicit that cyberspace is another area of conflict with Tehran: “Our closest enemy is Iran, which declared a year and a half ago that it had created a cyber command whose goal was to fight Israel and the US.”
No doubt the drums of war with Iran will continue to beat in Tel Aviv, particularly if Netanyahu is re-elected next year, as looks likely. But even if he does not manage to garner the necessary support to launch an all out assault on Iran, it is worth remembering that air strikes are not the only way of waging war or attacking a nuclear facility.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.