I am proposing to research cyberwarfare in the context of the actor because I hope to explain the variation in cybertactics between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America. The goal of this is to help my reader understand the decision making process behind a nation’s selection of a cyberstrategy.
This topic is a puzzle because the United States is a proponent of the theory of forward defense when it comes to cybersecurity, while the Iranian Republic views the cyber world in the context of misinformation and the rooting of cyber nodes via online attacks; the United States sees the battlefield as a fight over connectivity. These are diametrically opposite viewpoints which require different infrastructures and unique methodologies in order to be successful on the cyber battlefield. Cyberwarfare itself is an emerging non-kinetic battlefield which has real world ramifications and brings up questions of supremacy and resiliency.
In 2018, the United States Cyber Command released a report detailing the threats, as well as the way forward for dealing with these threats, posed against the United States. Within this debate, they promote the theory of resiliency and connectivity as the means to achieve supremacy in a cyber war. To achieve this, Cyber Command believes the United States should be “defending forward as possible to the origin of adversary” and maintain “constant engagement to impose imposes tactical friction and strategic costs on adversaries, compelling them to shift resources to defense and reduce attacks.” Furthermore, targets should be selected based on the node’s proximity to an intelligence sink in order to maximize connectivity damage. By outlasting the enemy, as well as targeting their infrastructure, US Cybercommand believes internet supremacy can be achieved.
Paul Nakasone, the current head of the National Security Association and US Cybercommand, detailed, in both an interview and an article submission, to Joint Force Quarterly on why he believes this strategy will be the most successful in pursuing American interests. Nakasone promotes the theory of Persistent Engagement by explaining that not only does targeting of CIKR (Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources) lead to cyber supremacy, it also leads to greater battlefield resiliency as “strategic effects in cyberspace come from the use—not the mere possession—of cyber capabilities to gain the initiative over those who mean [the United States] harm.” This, in brief, is the concept of habitual learning.
Contrary to the cyberwarfare philosophy represented in US Cyber Command briefing, James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies claims that Iran is following a different path when it comes to cyberwarfare. He claims that Iran is using “its extensive experience in covert activities to help guide its strategy and operations using cyber as a tool for coercion and force.” The Iranian strategy has been described as “a delicate game of chicken” where they are constantly probing for weaknesses as well as potential data for exploitation. The Islamic Republic does not have a comparable expenditure base to the United States when it comes to cyberwarfare methods. However, Iran has proved particularly adept at skewed force projection comparable to funding; “Iran’s trajectory shows how a medium-sized opponent willing to allocate resources can build cyber power.”
Frank Cilliffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute, presents the puzzle of Iranian cyberwarfare methods through the context of potential damages to the United States. He reported to Congress on how the Basij, an Iranian voluntary paramilitary group, and a hacker-for-hire group called the Ashiyane have been employed by Iran to target high-visibility targets “which could provide Iran an avenue for psychological operations directed against the U.S. public.” This, he explains, paired with the tendency of Iranian Quds forces to utilize rooting software and trojan horses, represents the emerging threat of the Iranian cyber force. The threat of Iranian cyberwarfare methods are perhaps greater than their actual capabilities, but Iran does utilize their cyber forces as a preventative and, oftentimes, reactionary tool which aims to dissuade cyber aggression.
In the context of the United States interest in cyberwarfare, the question of when, why, and how a state utilizes the cyber tools at its disposal is incredibly important. Nakasone himself repeats the infamous Sun Tzu quote, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” to explain this concept. Furthermore, understanding and exploring the variables which determine an actors role on the cyber battlefield could lead to greater success in both preventative and offensive action.
Further questions include, but are not limited to, questions of exploring more broad patterns across the board as well as individual case studies. For example, the question “what explains the variances in cyberwarfare tactics utilized by international actors,” would cover many bases and variable. Conversely, asking “why does the United States rely on Hackleburg and resiliency-based cyberwarfare tactics” would allow for an interpretivist exploration of a single case study.
“Command Vision for US Cyber Command: Achieve and Maintain Cyberspace Superiority,” United States Cyber Command, 23 March 2018.
William Eliason, “An Interview with Paul Nakasone,” Joint Force Quarterly Vol. 92(1), January 2019, 4-10.
James Lewis, “Iran and Cyber Power,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 25 June 2019.
 Frank Cilluffo, “The Iranian Cyber Threat to the United States,” The George Washington
University Homeland Security and Policy Institute, 26 April 2012.
Paul Nakasone, “A Cyber Force for Persistent Operations,” Joint Force Quarterly Vol. 92(1), January 2019, 10-15.