Home/ Opinion / Online-views/  Cyberspace: battleground of the future

On 6 September 2007, a squadron of Israeli fighter aircraft streaked across Syrian airspace and bombed a complex under construction in the Deir-er-Zor region of Syria. This raid remains one of the mysteries in the Middle Eastern conflict. Beyond token protests and denials by Syria that it was a nuclear facility with a military purpose and oblique suggestions by the American media, the incident got negligible coverage in international forums.

However, in some ways, this raid was a historic event, which perhaps explains why the two direct players, Israel and Syria, and three indirect ones, North Korea, Russia and the US, chose to underplay it.

In early 2001, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had just begun his reign when Syria was being courted by North Korea. Intelligence agencies including Israel’s Mossad and the US’s CIA reported several furtive meetings between Syrian and North Korean military officials in both the countries. By 2004, there was strong evidence that the Koreans were assisting Syria in building covert nuclear capability. In December 2006, Israeli agents broke into the laptop of a senior Syrian official in London and obtained further proof in the form of blueprints of a facility in Kibar in Syria and photographs of meetings between the head of the Syrian nuclear agency and officials of North Korea. By 2007, Israel and the US were convinced that Syria had indeed been covertly constructing a nuclear enrichment facility. After Israeli requests to the US to destroy the facility were turned down, Israel decided to go it alone.

The Russian supplied Syrian air defence systems were considered one of the most formidable deployments in the Middle East. These included early warning radars that swept every inch of sensitive airspace. Yet, on the night of the raid, the radar operators saw nothing on their screens. It was as if the Israeli fighters had miraculously turned into “stealth" aircraft.

Despite the success of the raid, Israelis, who traditionally prefer to brag about their triumphs, chose to impose a media blackout on the incident. However, in the months following the raid, sketchy details began surfacing in the US and European press.

Reportedly, the secret behind this subterfuge was a superbly coordinated military operation pivoting around a sophisticated information warfare “hack" into Syrian defence systems using technology similar to an American programme codenamed “Senior Suter". This raid was possibly the first live implementation of information warfare being used in conjunction with conventional kinetic attack.

Prior to the raid, Israeli air force commandos were inserted into the target area to covertly designate the target using laser beams that would guide the bombs from the raiding aircraft. The key, however, lay to neutralizing the Syrian air defence, which is where Suter came in.

The principle of the radar has remained unchanged since its use during the Second World War. Radars use radio waves to detect and range objects. The ground emitter station sends out waves, which travel into airspace and upon encountering objects such as aircraft, bounce off them and return to the receiver unit. This unit houses sophisticated algorithms that discern the type of object, its path, speed and other details. Radar system can identify the nature of the threat and accordingly inform their own fighters or even launch missiles automatically.

Strategic weapon platforms have traditionally been modelled around four dimensions of battle space, i.e. length, width, height and time. A handful of countries has long been working on programmes that aim to control a fifth dimension—cyberspace. The US umbrella programme for cyberspace dominance is codenamed Big Safari, of which Suter is one of the advanced projects (hence, the moniker Senior Suter).

Suter begins by locating antennas of defence systems, emitting signals. Unlike traditional radar evasion systems that focus on hiding from them by using stealth technology or confusing them using jamming technology, Suter takes the battle into the system. Once it has homed on to the emitter, Suter sends out signals of its own, which penetrate into the inbound signals and “ride" them back into the whole system. These customized signals consist of sophisticated algorithms and malware that infect the system from one node to other, much like computer viruses. So rather than trying to deceive the radars, Suter penetrates the enemies’ decision support systems, literally “owning" them. Suter can then create false positives, fake information, or as in the case of the Syrian raid, shut down the entire system for the duration of the attack. Once Suter has control, it can take over the complete network and even if the enemy knows they have been hijacked, there is little they can do to overcome it.

India’s weapons platforms, especially armoured formations, air defence, naval and Air Force formations are heavily “wired" and completely dependent on communications. Non-military national assets are equally reliant on secure and uninterrupted connectivity. Electrical grids, water channelizing, communications, aviation, financial institutions, energy production and distribution, etc., all have the same jugular. And yet despite India’s great prowess as an IT nation, we still have a long way to go in achieving proficiency in the fifth dimension, both in defensive and offensive roles.

The American civil war general Ulysses Grant once said that the laws of successful war in one generation would ensure defeat in another. Of the four traditional dimensions, time is the most important one. And that is because unless strategic stakeholders move fast in their thinking and creation of such capabilities, we will always be one loop behind in the fifth dimension. Alarmingly, that is where future wars, whether conventional or against terror, will be fought.

Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the www.outstandingspeakersbureau.in and author of Everyman’s War (www.fb.com/everymanswarbook). The views expressed are personal.

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Updated: 31 Dec 2013, 10:22 PM IST
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