German armed forces equipping for cyber war

By MICHAEL FISCHER | Deutsche Presse-Agentur | Published: May 22, 2013

RHEINBACH, Germany — The military training area of the future looks like a computer-science classroom. Trusses of cables descend from the ceiling and nearly 40 flat screens are spread out over five tables.

A digital projector shows a virtual war scene on the wall as Redland has attacked Blueland on the continent of Azoria in the middle of the Atlantic and partially occupies the country in a war over raw materials.

The UN Security Council has approved an intervention and the German parliament has agreed to participate, sending its Cyber Attack department into the war effort.

Digital tools like "John the Ripper," "hostenum" and "chmod" help penetrate Redland's military intranet and shut down the air defense system. The war is all but won. The drill has successfully been completed.

The virtual exercise was run from Tomburg Joint Services Barracks in Rheinbach, near Bonn, where the Strategic Reconnaissance Command (KSA), a joint unit of the army, navy and air force, is based.

The 60-person Computer Network Operation (CNO) group of software experts has been practicing for cyber war here for years — until now in secret. The German Defence Ministry last summer did not even want to say how many soldiers were in the CNO.

But a group of journalists were allowed recently to observe the work of the cyber soldiers — without mobile phones, laptops and recording devices. And photographers were not even invited.

The unit's purpose is to allow the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, to tackle an enemy via the internet.

Germany's defense against hostile attacks of the same sort is handled by a different agency, the German Federal Office for Information Security.

The armed-forces unit in Rheinbach already has an offensive capability. Operating from German soil it could penetrate foreign networks using hacker software that is freely available over the internet.

"We use the same wares everyone else uses," explains one CNO soldier.

Still missing from the arsenal are armored vehicles to shelter the tech experts if they deploy into zones of conflict, but those are due to arrive within three years.

The computer warriors remain just as reined in as Germany's fighter jets, warships or ground troops: without explicit, case-by-case authorization from the German parliament, no deployment outside Germany's borders is allowed.

Since no such authorization has ever been issued, and the unit has no transport, the CNO is currently limited to exercises only.

The scenario that played out on the wall in the training room is not just fiction.

In 2007, Israel bombed an alleged nuclear reactor in al-Kibar, Syria. The Israelis are believed to have used the internet to shut down the Syrian air defense system before the jets arrived.

The most well known example of a cyber weapon is the computer worm Stuxnet which was deployed in the summer of 2010.

Experts assume it was developed to sabotage the Iranian atomic program.

Since the workload to create such a program is immense, specialists believe countries or at least a governmentally supported group was behind the attack — with Israel and the United States as the top suspects.

The Americans are likely best equipped for a cyber war, though the digital troop in Rheinbach are not too far behind.