The cyber battlefield isn’t all about Russia

The cyber battlefield isn’t all about Russia
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“My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Not since President Reagan’s off mic quip has the American chattering class worked itself into such a lather about the Russian menace. Unfortunately, while the interminable discussion over Moscow’s “election hacking” continues, The Big Three — Iran, China, and North Korea — continue to assault our cyber flank, driven by a force as committed to malice as the Gipper was to a good laugh.

The cyber battlefield is fluid, difficult to monitor and has a low barrier of entry. Initially, Russian hacks and propaganda drew attention and appropriate, quiet response. Now, we risk supersizing the damage by being pulled into a dangerous cave of tunnel vision.


Moscow is not our sole cyber adversary, and, when you strip away the shirtless bravado, you see the Russia of today is not the Main Enemy of yesteryear. Think about it: Its economy is smaller than a sputtering Italy, its infrastructure is fracturing at the seams, the public is tiring of the kleptocrats, internal unrest is rife, and the military, despite Syrian bluster, is largely decaying.

Were it not for its aging nuclear arsenal, they would fall somewhere between Brazil and Canada on the threat matrix. While giving the Bear it’s due attention, it is time to keep calm, course correct and address the cyber threat posed by Iran, North Korea and China.

Moscow hysteria aside, let’s examine Iran. Tehran has long been considered a cyber backwater — less advanced, and technologically and intellectually inferior to other adversaries such as China and Russia. This is a dangerous misconception. Iran’s cyber army is young, adroit and their attacks are complex, aggressive and strategic. Iran has poured billions of dollars into creating offensive cyber capabilities which could potentially paralyze America’s government and military operations.

Further, we must not overlook how vigorously Iran has battered U.S., Saudi and British infrastructure. They have besieged the financial sector and permeated and pillaged our ivy walls of academia. Last year, in an attack characterized as, "a frightening new frontier of cybercrime,” they targeted a dam in upstate New York. Capitalizing on the boundary-less possibilities of cyperspace, Iranian hackers continue to target energy, telecommunications, and chemical companies and, in an ultimate gesture of appreciation, even the United Nations.

In recent years, Iran has stolen more than 31 terabytes of data and intellectual property according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The data was purloined to “assist Iranian universities, as well as scientific and research organizations, and to obtain access to non-Iranian scientific resources,” according to the DOJ statement. In short, Iran now has technological know-how and capabilities that would have taken years and billions of dollars to develop indigenously.

Congress and the U.S. government must take the Iranian cyber threat seriously and act accordingly. Grandstanding about Russian election hacking on cable news should give way to a deliberate, clandestine program aimed at recalibrating the global cyber battlefield. Cyber conflict is new, but the first step is timeless: recognize and comprehend your adversary’s end game.

To this end, the Mullah’s have been quite clear they are driven to consolidate power and build regional authority. For Iran, the cyber battlefield is significantly more egalitarian and cost-effective than tanks, planes, boots, and halal MREs. Cyber warfare allows Iran to erase America’s overwhelming conventional military lead, so it’s a reliable bet Tehran will continue to strive and invest to improve its cyber capabilities.

Iran is waging an enduring, targeted crusade of malicious cyber warfare against the United States, our allies, and any other country which questions (and, thus, threatens) the Iranian leadership’s raison d’etre.

Blinded by our pinpoint focus on the Russian cyber program, the Mullah’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are continuing to drive, develop, and wield a formidable cyberwar complex — funded in part by President Obama’s $1.7 billion cash donation. Unfortunately for us and our partners, the “cyber arms race” will unquestionably prove more difficult to contain, monitor and combat than the rogue nation’s nuclear program.

Gregory Keeley is a retired lieutenant commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. LCDR Keeley also served as senior adviser to a vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), and to a chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). He was also the National Cybersecurity Institute’s inaugural visiting fellow.