Written By: Vice Admiral
Taj M. Khattak (R)
Amid growing global concerns and increase in cyber security incidents and threats, both in frequency and intensity, it makes sense to share best practices to promote security but given their visceral common animosity towards Pakistan and a litany of past attempts to carryout pre-emptive strikes on our nuclear installations, any military dimension of co-operation in cyber security poses a clear threat to Pakistan. We therefore need to keep a sharp eye on how many fronts is Indo-Israel cyberspace relationship building up using terrorism and ‘online extremism’ as an excuse for common threat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited India to mark the 25th anniversary of normal diplomatic ties between the two countries. The Israeli Premier’s visit soon after India’s vote against UN General Assembly’s resolution on U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel, and just six months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel, is indicative of strong emerging relations between the two countries.
India had recognized Israel in 1950 and allowed it to open a consulate in Mumbai in 1953 but its foreign policy goals and alliances, such as support for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), being a member of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), near total dependence on former Soviet Union during Cold War for its defense needs and a strong desire to counter Pakistan’s influence with Arab states, came in the way of upgrading its diplomatic relations to ambassadorial level.
On an ideological plane also, Indian National Congress, the dominant political party, opposed full diplomatic relations due to its perception that state of Israel was based on religion and as such analogous to Pakistan. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was during BJP government, riding on the wave of Hindu extremist sentiments, that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the historic first visit to India in 2003 and their relations, especially in defense, have been in ascendency ever since. How far Pakistan’s foreign policy of being ‘more Arab than the Arabs’ in its antagonism with Israel, even after some of them had established normal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, helped India and Israel to come closer to each other, is now a moot point.
In recent years, Israel has become the second biggest exporter of arms to India after U.S., which averages over USD 1 billion a year. Netanyahu tried to salvage ‘an anti-tank missile deal for 8000 missiles and associated launchers to the Indian army worth USD 850 million which was put on hold a few months before the visit. The missile, code named ‘Spike’, is a fourth generation weapon system. It is operationalized in more than fifteen armies of the world and under evaluation in another six countries. Pakistan’s anti-armor weaponry, ‘Bakhtar Shikan’ is second generation missile based on Chinese HJ-8 system–a 1980s design but modified since then.
Mr. Netanyahu led a delegation of 130 businessmen from 102 Israeli companies, largest ever taken by him on a foreign visit and drawn from areas such as agriculture, water, cyber security and healthcare. A total of nine memorandums of understandings (MoUs) were signed in oil and gas, space, air transport, films, homeopathic medicine, solar energy, investment sector and cyberspace. India, in an era of high speed and high intensity i-cloud computing, big data analytics and artificial intelligence, and as a growing economy, should be well within its rights, to pursue enhanced cyber stability and script and adopt rules of the road. Under normal circumstances, there should be no harm if India engaged with tech companies in Israel’s booming startup ecosystem in ‘Silicon Wadi’, to domestically replicate Israel’s success in incubating the world’s most sought after startups in cyber security.
Also, amid growing global concerns and increase in cyber security incidents and threats, both in frequency and intensity, it makes sense to share best practices to promote security but given their visceral common animosity towards Pakistan and a litany of past attempts to carryout pre-emptive strikes on our nuclear installations, any military dimension of co-operation in cyber security poses a clear threat to Pakistan. We therefore need to keep a sharp eye on how many fronts is Indo-Israel cyberspace relationship building up using terrorism and ‘online extremism’ as an excuse for common threat.
The failure of Group of Government Experts (GGE) to reach any consensus in the debate on how international law could apply to use of information and communication technologies by states and creation of norms in cyberspace under the aegis of UNO, has added to the uncertainty and anxiety. One analyst has described the present moment as the ‘golden age of espionage’ since cyber warfare is nonlethal, un-attributable with plenty of space for deniability, and can pass almost completely unpunished.
The world woke up to realism of cyber warfare when the Stuxnet malware which infected Iran’s nuclear program in 2007, was traced to an intelligence unit of Israel Defense Forces (IDF), trained by an elite and secret program known as Talpiot. A recent story in The New York Times left enough room for speculations that failures in recent North Korea’s missile firings could also be due to reasons ‘other’ than technical shortcomings. South Korea’s cyber defense curriculum emulates Talpiot program to train its cyber warriors. Indian media has hinted at co-operation in this training program.
The Talpiot program was introduced in 1970s and has since become a benchmark in cyber security training and produced a generation of cyber experts. These experts have progressed and established some of Israel’s most successful technical firms like CyberArk and Fireglass. In 2015, UK entered into cyber security research project with Israel and launched a domestic talent drive based on Talpiot to build up capacity. Within Israel it is acknowledged that no other military unit has had more of an impact on the State of Israel than Talpiot nor will any unit have in the years ahead.
A brief study of some cyber warfare incidents in recent years indicate how ‘almost anything’ can precipitate a major cyberattack crisis. In Estonia in 2007, for example, a relocation of a wartime memorial in Tallinn led to tensions in diplomatic relations between Estonia and Russia, followed by attacks on websites of ministries, banks, political parties with an aim to paralyze Estonian society. In Saudi Arabia in 2012, a group of hackers blamed the government for crimes and atrocities in Syria and Bahrain and attacked Saudi Aramco damaging over 30,000 computers in order to disrupt Saudi oil exports. South Korea in 2013 experienced cyberattacks ostensibly in retaliation to UN sanctions against North Korea for which it held U.S. and South Korea responsible.
India has progressed in cyber warfare and is keen to bolster its offensive capability as well as upgrade its security architecture for a more robust defense. Last year, India embarked on aggressive ‘digital diplomacy’ and entered into an extensive cyber agreement with Russia on the sidelines of BRICS summit and also concluded a framework agreement with U.S. Pakistan has a huge gap between its capability and capacity in cyber warfare. Our vulnerabilities in transport system, power grid, banking operations and functioning of bourses and the possibilities of sabotaging of national elections to create nationwide unrest and chaos needs to be addressed to discourage cyber-attacks.
In evolving responses, our technical expertise will have to be dove-tailed with diplomatic responses where Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved as an instrument of policy and response. To be effective, however, it should be in possession of precise information for removal of malicious computer codes from specific servers instead of generalized accusations–a strategy followed by U.S. in 2014 during cyber-attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment and the subsequent fallout.
With the passage of time, it is becoming evident that ‘pre-emptive strikes’ in any future war may well occur in cyberspace to cause disruptions in country’s vital networks and infrastructure and on a scale far more than hitherto fore. The growing Indo-Israel nexus in cyberspace is a dangerous development for which we have to be ready.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy and eminent expert on national security issues.