Computers may have proven to be as powerful
a weapon against sabre rattling rogue nation states as the MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs) was in cratering an ISIS tunnel in Afghanistan.
As you may have noticed, part of the recent ceremonies taking place in Pyongyang, North Korea, commemorating the birth of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il Sung, 105 years ago – was a missile launch that spectacularly failed. What you may not know is that it is entirely possible that the failure had to do with something other than the design and construction of the missile itself.
For a clue to what might have caused missile interruptus on Saturday in the Hermit Kingdom, it’s instructive to look back at something that took place in 2010, when by unofficial reports, the United States deployed a malicious virus against the Iranian Natanz nuclear development facility. The Stuxnet virus when activated, was perhaps the mother of all zero day cyber warfare attacks, destroying or incapacitating 5 nuclear centrifuges in one day. It was believed to be a collaborative effort between the Pentagon and an Israeli cyber espionage group that is an appendage of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces).
At the time, neither the U.S. nor the Israelis’ publicly acknowledged the operation, although in a PBS special report called Need To Know, the producers referred to a statement from the White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, saying, “we’re glad they [the Iranians] are having trouble with their centrifuge machine and that we – the US and its allies – are doing everything we can to make sure that we complicate matters for them”.
Iran’s power plant and industrial infrastructure suffered subsequent attacks from either Stuxnet or one of the other related worms that the U.S. has developed, including one event in December of 2012. Stuxnet – regarded as possibly the most expensive cyber weapon ever developed, may have been in the design and testing phase for years prior to its deployment in 2010.
In reference to the episode in North Korea on Saturday, it is interesting to first examine the specifics of North Korea’s failed missiles. One such, classified as a Hwasong-10 and dubbed by U.S. military intelligence as a “Musudan” rocket, appears to be designed after a Soviet era R-27 Zyb/SS-N-6 – which had a range of up to 2,500 km – or about 1,500 miles. While the R-27 was estimated to have failed about 18 percent of the time, North Korea’s Hwasong-10, has a reported 88 percent failure rate.
Expert assessments rate the Musudan as a very poor copy of its outdated 1960’s era Soviet model in every respect. North Korea also has – at least in theory, two true ICBM range missiles – the KN-14 and KN-08 – the latter’s design range estimated to be able to strike targets on the East Coast of the United States. Neither of these ICBM range missiles have been tested. Analysts believe that a previous Musudan (KN-07) launch failed at the Kalma Ballistic Missile Launch Site around the end of last month – following a series of 4 failures the previous year.
Indeed, the construction and flawed design of the North Korean missiles, may in fact be their prime Achilles Heel, but the cyber operations against its launch systems appear to be standard operating procedure at the Department of Defense.
In 2013 following one of Kim’s nuclear tests, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, issued a statement saying that “cyberwarfare, directed energy and electronic attack,” (malware, lasers and signal jamming) have become an additional element of our defense arsenal. The assorted tactics are known in the defense community as “left of launch” strategies – which also broadly include efforts to attack the launch platform itself.
Ken Geers, a noted authority on cyber security having participated in projects with the NSA, explained to Business Insider that “within military intelligence spaces, this is what they do. If you think that war is possible with a given state, you’re going to be trying to prepare the battle space for conflict. In the internet age, that means hacking.”
Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland also has obliquely acknowledged the possibility of sabotage on the North Korea launches, telling Fox News, “We can’t talk about secret intelligence and things that might have been done, covert operations, so I really have no comment.” And in government speak, “no comment” is a comment – a very telling one.
Some analysts argue that more development and deployment of cyber sabotage strategies could trigger a cyber arms race, but the fact is that such a race is already underway, with Russia and China – and no doubt other allies – certainly our partners in the Stuxnet operation, engaging in the whirlwind effort to neutralize their rivals weapons systems.
Ironically enough, it was a North Korean cyber attack on the NSA’s Tailored Access Office seeking to intrude on the Dept. of Defense NIPRNET that enabled the NSA to hijack the North Korean botnets and use them to distribute a malware program into Pyongyang’s computers. That major intelligence coup leads experts to speculate that the failed missile launches may be accountable at least in part, to zero day attacks from United States Cyber Command having penetrated the Hermit Kingdom’s Command and Control (C&C) server network.
As a result, North Korea has embarked on a “Quantum Key” encryption system designed to protect their computers from outside surveillance and hacking.
The problem for them is that it relies on uninterrupted fiber optic connections that have no optical switches, routers and amplifiers, which means that it could only protect Pyongyang but not any significant peripheral points within North Korea. The minute routers and switches are installed to extend the network, NSA will find a way to break in.
Stay tuned. It all gets more interesting from here.