There is a risk that we overanalyze attacks on critical infrastructure and try to find a strategic intent where there are none. Our potential adversaries, in my view, could attack critical American infrastructure for other reasons than executing a national strategy. In many cases, it can be as simple as hostile totalitarian nations that do not respect international humanitarian law, use critical American infrastructure as a cyber range. Naturally, the focus of their top-tier operators is on conducting missions within the strategic direction, but the lower echelon operators can use foreign critical infrastructure as a training ground. If the political elite sanctions these actions, nothing stops a rogue nation from attacking our power grid, waterworks, and public utilities to train their future, advanced cyber operators. The end game is not critical infrastructure – but critical infrastructure provides an educational opportunity.
Naturally, we have to defend critical infrastructure because by doing so, we protect the welfare of the American people and the functions of our society. That said, only because it is vital for us doesn’t automatically mean that it is crucial for the adversary.
Cyberattacks on critical infrastructure can have different intents. There is a similarity between cyber and national intelligence; both are trying to make sense of limited information looking at a denied information environment. In reality, our knowledge of the strategic intent and goals of our potential adversaries is limited.
We can study the adversary’s doctrine, published statements, tactics, technics, and events, but significant gaps exist to understand the intent of the attacks. We are assessing the adversary’s strategic intent from the outside, which are often qualified guesses, with all the uncertainty that comes with it. Then to assess strategic intent, many times, logic and past behavior are the only guidance. Nation-state actors tend to seek a geopolitical end goal, change policy, destabilize the target nation, or acquire the information they can use for their benefit.
Attacks on critical infrastructure make the news headline, and for a less able potential adversary, it can serve as a way to show their internal audience that they can threaten the United States. In 2013, Iranian hackers broke into the control system of a dam in Rye Brook, N.Y. The actual damage was limited due to circumstances the hackers did not know. Maintenance procedures occurred at the facility, which limited the risk for broader damage.
The limited intrusion in the control system made national news, engaged the State of New York, elected officials, Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Department of Homeland Security, and several more agencies. Time Magazine called it in the headline; ”Iranian Cyber Attack on New York Dam Shows Future of War.”
When attacks occur on critical domestic infrastructure, it is not a given that it has a strategic intent to damage the U.S.; the attacks can also be a message to the attacker’s population that their country can strike the Americans in their homeland. For a geopolitically inferior country that seeks to be a threat and a challenger to the U.S., examples are Iran or North Korea; the massive American reaction to a limited attack on critical infrastructure serves its purpose. The attacker had shown its domestic audience that they could shake the Americans, primarily when U.S. authorities attributed the attack to Iranian hackers, making it easier to present it as news for the Iranian audience. Cyber-attacks become a risk-free way of picking a fight with the Americans without risking escalation.
Numerous cyber-attacks on critical American infrastructure could be a way to harass the American society and have no other justification than hostile authoritarian senior leaders has it as an outlet for their frustration and anger against the U.S.
Attackers seeking to maximize civilian hardship as a tool to bring down a targeted society have historically faced a reversed reaction. The German bombings of the civilian targets during the 1940’s air campaign “the Blitz” only hardened the British resistance against the Nazis. An attacker needs to take into consideration the potential outfall of a significant attack on critical infrastructure. The reactions to Pearl Harbor and 9-11 show that there is a risk for any adversary to attack the American homeland and that such an attack might unify American society instead of injecting fear and force submission to foreign will.
Critical infrastructure is a significant attack vector to track and defend. Still, cyberattacks on U.S. critical infrastructure create massive reactions, which are often predictable, are by itself a vulnerability if orchestrated by an adversary following the Soviet/Russian concept of reflexive control.