Cyber integral to hundreds of US kill/capture missions in 2016

AF-Cyber.jpg

Photo Credit: US Air Force

A version of this story incorrectly identified the number of U.S. kill/capture missions to which cyber was integral. This has been corrected.

The Air Force has conducted a multitude of cyber missions over the last year that have contributed to captured or killed terrorists.

According to written testimony provided to the House and Senate Armed Services committees this week, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson said, “The Air Force conducted 4,000 cyber missions against more than 100,000 targets, disrupting adversaries and enabling over 200 High Value Individual kill/capture missions.”

An Air Force spokeswoman confirmed to FifthDomain that these 4,000 missions took place within the 2016 calendar year and that a subset of them were in direct support of the 200 HVI kill/capture missions.

The Air Force would not provide details regarding the commands or areas of responsibility for these operations and HVIs.

HVI is typically a term reserved for insurgent or terrorist individuals as part of ongoing campaigns and operations to degrade these groups.

The main campaign against such organizations currently is the global anti-Islamic State group coalition, or Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve, which seeks to “degrade and destroy” the group. Cyber forces have also been working against ISIS to disrupt its networks and finances.

Soldiers are currently delivering effects against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria on a daily basis, Brig. Gen. J.P. McGee, deputy commanding general for operations at Army Cyber Command, told reporters Feb. 9. While offering scant details, he conceded that it’s fair to say these soldiers are both deployed to theater and operating remotely within the United States.

Cyber Command declined to comment regarding the Air Force’s cyber missions as they apply to HVIs.

During the Iraq War, long before cyberspace was donned a domain of warfare and thus predating a formalized military cyber command, National Security Agency hackers would infiltrate the cellphones and electronic devices of insurgents to provide their location to pilots above for more precise targeting, according to Daily Beast reporter and author of “@War” Shane Harris. Hackers would also go one step further, sending fake messages to insurgents through hacked devices posing as trusted sources that told fighters to meet at a certain location, which would then be targeted by U.S. military aircraft.

Evolving from the efforts of NSA hackers into a formalized military force, these capabilities are essentially what military cyber operators are conducting today. When the Air Force is talking about leveraging offensive operations, one of the ways this can occur is similar to those carried out during the Iraq War, Robert Lee, formerly an Air Force cyber warfare operations officer, told FifthDomain. Cyber teams will target adversaries’ cellphones, emails and communications devices to either deny access during special operations forces raids to ensure they’re not disrupted by enemies calling for backup, or used as targeting information for aircraft above, said Lee, who is now a nonresident cybersecurity fellow at the think tank New America.

Special operations forces also used their cyber skills in infiltrating internet cafes known to be frequented by insurgents during the Iraq War and uploading software that could either recognize keystrokes or covertly activate a webcam, allowing soldiers to positively identify a target, Sean Naylor wrote in his book “Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.”

Lee said the model from the Iraq War influenced where Cyber Command is today as it scales effects and brings these capabilities to combatant command commanders.