Information Warfare: January 21, 2002


Deceptions- Never forget that the best equipped electronic weapons can still be defeated by rather crude countermeasures. The U.S. Air Force is still annoyed at how they were snookered by simple deceptions in Kosovo and Iraq. We were dropping bombs in Iraq throughout the 1990s and there is concern over whether we were hitting what we thought we were. But even before Iraq came along, the air force had long experience with such deceptions in Korea in the early 1950s, where they may be faced with the same problems encountered fifty years ago. 

Since the end of the Cold War, the CIA has published a lot of detail on Chinese and North Korean deceptions against American air power. For three years, U.S. and allied airpower tried in vain to cut off supplies to communist troops along the front line in central Korea. The most common, and successful, communist deception was the "false hit." Bridges that had been taken down by bombs were repaired in a way that allowed them to still be used (if only at night), but still appeared to be unusable from the air. Another favorite "false hit" technique was to equip trucks with barrels full of oily rags or straw. When American aircraft attacked the convoy, the stuff in the barrels was set afire, producing a lot of smoke. The drivers were instructed to quickly move off the road like they were hit, and then bail out of the truck. From the air, the pilots marveled at their accuracy, and flew off looking for more targets. Once the enemy warplanes were out of sight, the tops were put back on the barrels to put the fires out and the convoy proceeded on its way. A few trucks would be hit, but not as many as if the aircraft came back for pass after pass of bombing and strafing. 

The air force insists they can beat these half century deceptions with better sensors. Maybe, but this also assumes that the communists have not upgraded their deceptions during the last half century. It's unlikely that the warplanes have gained an edge here. Air power was unable to keep the Serbs from supplying their forces in Kosovo in 1999. We thought we had successfully used air power cut off the Iraqi forces in Kuwait during 1991. Later it was discovered that most of those troops were Kurdish and Shia reservists, just the kind of people Saddam wanted to be rid of. Even in the best of circumstances he did not supply these guys on a decent level and was not interested taking any energetic efforts (like deceptions) to keep the food and water coming. The situation is worse than it appears, because the air force has never taken the ground based deceptions seriously enough to make a real effort to deal with them. So the cycle of, "we got the problem beat," and, "oops" seems likely to continue into the age of cyberwarfare.

We are already seeing indications that the same pattern is emerging with cyberwar. The concept of "honeypots" (servers set up to attract, and distract, skilled hackers from the real targets) is already in use. And many firewall and other net security programs use forms of deception to ward off serious damage from hackers. As good as the offensive tools of cyber war, never forget that an energetic defender is not without techniques to thwart the attacks. System administrators, like enemy infantry trying to avoid getting bombed, have a major incentive to figure out ways to keep their systems up and running. An old military truism is that, for every offensive weapon, there is a defense and the defense is, overall, more likely to prevail than the offense.


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