Recent reports have revealed the deployment of new cyber units of the Marine Corps to the Middle East. Dubbed Cyber Protection Teams the units are charged with shoring up communications and patching vulnerabilities to a growing range of cyber threats. What makes these teams important - and unique - is that they are able to be on the ground, in the thick of the IT challenges that military installations have to deal with on a daily basis, identify the relevant threats, and find solutions.
The deployment of the cyber teams speaks volumes about the changing nature of the war against jihadists in the region. While ISIS and other jihadist groups have made the world of cyber their battleground for quite some time, the direct incorporation of the ground war into the cyber one, and vice versa, is now starting to become apparent.
The threat of cyberattacks against US personnel run the full range.
For men and women stationed in bases in less hostile areas such as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, the risk may be getting hacked via an unsecured Wi-Fi signal used during their leaves off base. Other instances can be more vicious, including direct attempts by adversaries to disrupt the systems that support military operations.
One big threat pointed out by a team member in a recently released interview was personnel being targeted by the hacking method known as “spear phishing.” Like regular phishing, this variety targets a device through email or another digital channel by sending malicious software in a communication and convinces a victim to download it. Spear phishing, as the name might imply, targets a specific victim by tailoring the content of the communication to the recipient. In the case of military personnel, this means adding the insignia of a particular unit or posing as a fellow soldier or officer.
The units are not only charged with identifying the threats and patching them, but also educating personnel on best practices and ways of protecting themselves and the data they use from attack.
The innovation of the cyber teams is one of the most interesting developments in this era of “cyber-renaissance” within the defense establishment. Two months ago, the administration announced the creation of a unified Cyber Command, putting strategy for the cyber arena on par with other major commands such as Pacific Command (USPACOM) and Central Command (USCENTCOM). While the creation of the new command had many long-term implications, the development of new strategies for on the ground cyber threats was certainly a hoped-for outcome. The emergence of Cyber Command put on the fast track the Cyber Mission Force program, the collection of units set up to execute specialized cyber fighting missions. The Marine Cyber Teams deployed in the Middle East are certainly in line with this long-term goal.
As the cyber and kinetic arenas become more closely linked, there is no doubt that we will witness other branches deploying their own cyber units, with increasing capabilities and mandates.