Cyberwarfare: Iran is playing & who will play along

Things are certainly heating up with Iran's continued defiance of the West on the issue of its alleged nuclear programme. While headlines continue to blare loud on sanctions and the din of war drums keep getting louder, another asymmetric war has already commenced and is now in full swing.

The modern battlefield does not require carpet bombing by dumb bombs, artillery barrages and napalm because the warfront scene changed drastically with the ushering in of the invasion of Iraq in 1991 when we were dazzled, with images courtesy of CNN, of hi-tech weaponry such as smart bombs and cruise missiles knocking off key point installations and military assets deep inland, all of which were fired from miles away.

A decade on, we have once again witnessed the prowess of military innovation in the aerial war over Libya. Whilste, we remain glued to our TV sets in 'shock and awe' to see the spectacle, the computer technology has undergone a quiet revolution over the last few decades and today, 'cyber warfare' is a serious business for militaries around the world. The battle is now, literally 'on line', and nowhere is it more evident than in Iran. The world woke up to a new threat dubbed 'stuxnet' in mid-2010, a computer virus so lethal that it allegedly made industrial software developed by the famed German company Siemens vulnerable. Software used by the Iranians in their suspected nuclear facilities to enrich uranium.

With 'digital security' now really under threat, it is hardly surprising to note that Iranians are pouring in enough money to build their own cyber warfare capability. A piece in the Jerusalem Post published on December 18 outlines how serious the matter has become for policymakers in Iran. Apparently, a billion dollars have been earmarked to develop systems and human resources aimed at combating an ever-increasing cyber threat. Indeed, if one takes a closer look at the world at large, governments in the Middle East and far beyond are taking measures to combat this new dimension in modern warfare, including the State of Israel, NATO, China and Russia to mention but a few.

What is of concern with the current range of destructive viruses, whether it be 'stuxnet' or 'Duqu' is their ability to take control of serious pieces of equipment. If the Iranian experience is anything to go by, the latest viruses have the capacity to compromise "nuclear controllers and instead of replacing existing code, it injected more to work alongside the original commands. The stuxnet virus was designed so that it could hide any trace of the attack from the Iranian plant's operators until it was too late." Indeed a report by Iran's Institute for Science and International Security goes as far stating "An attack by Stuxnet turns off the converters' warnings and alarms, and sends false data to the operators' computer terminals. As a result, the operators are unlikely to discover what is happening until it is too late. It is doubtful that any of the plant's safety systems can intervene in time to stop the destruction wrought by this particular attack sequence."

Needless to say, were a designer-made computer virus to effectively shut off a country's nuclear enrichment programme, it would not only revolutionise modern warfare, but also help usher in cost savings of trillions of dollars and save countless lives. Unfortunately, two can play that game. Today's victim could very easily become tomorrow's victor, and therein lies the danger. This is already evident. Christian Science Monitor reported this month that apparently the Iranians had figured out how to compromise one of US's much vaunted RQ-170 global positioning system used by its drones to force a landing on Iranian territory.

The question then is where does it all stop? And what happens if this technology falls into the hands of non-state actors? What if the GPS systems of commercial airlines are 'hijacked'? Are we then to have a revisit of 9/11 on a global scale? The questions and scenarios are impossible to predict at this juncture. But the possible nightmare scenarios are very much palpable. While playing the eternal 'cat and mouse game' may amuse some, it is certainly no game when it comes to dealing with a nation alleged to possess nuclear weaponry. Despite our fondness for new fangled ideas, the age of détente will always be there. And it is in negotiations we must place our faith in to resolve the crisis faced with Iran on one side and the rest-of-the-world on the other. For a nuclear winter, no matter how improbable it may sound, will certainly not be to anyone's advantage in the sunny Arabian Peninsula.


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