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U.S., NATO Exploring Collective Cyber Defense

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100415a-HQ28-007 NATO Headquarters Brussels.

WASHINGTON — Top American and NATO military leaders could begin exploring the ramifications of an Article 5 response by the alliance to a cyber attack, according to a top Pentagon cyber official.

The question over whether European military leaders can invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter is one of several cyber-related issues that could be teed up at the alliance’s upcoming summit in Wales this fall, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Davis, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy, told USNI News on Monday.

However, NATO leaders are still drafting the agenda for the upcoming Wales summit, and any discussion regarding the consequences of an Article 5 response in the cyber realm have yet to be finalized, according to DOD spokeswoman Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson.

Article 5 of the organization’s charter, rooted in the organization’s collective defense strategy, states an attack on any one NATO member can be considered an attack on the entire alliance. While it is clear an Article 5 response can be triggered by a conventional attack, the ambiguity that surrounds cyber attacks makes the decision that much more difficult for top military brass.

The Pentagon’s position on whether a cyber attack can trigger an Article 5 response by NATO is that any attack — cyber or otherwise — must be judged on a case-by-case basis by alliance leaders, before the decision to invoke Article 5, Davis said.

But numerous questions surrounding possible responses to cyberwarfare operations, such as viable attribution of an attack’s origin, whether military or civilian networks are being targeted or if an attack clearly results in loss of life continue to plague military strategists.

“Instantaneous destructive cyber attacks . . . aren’t the only conceivable scenarios that can trigger application of Article 5,” according to Klara Jordan, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.

“The future cyber conflict will play out in unexplored waters [and] cases of economic disintegration, with devastating and deadly economic disruption, will have to be considered and accommodate” as NATO and other US allies continue to grapple with possible joint responses to offensive cyber warfare operations, she said in a recent article in the Huffington Post.

In May, the Department of Justice filed federal charges against five Chinese nationals, stating the individuals were part of Beijing’s ongoing cyber espionage campaign against American networks.

It was the first time the U.S. government has taken formal action against China for alleged cyber warfare operations.

As the U.S. and its allies continue to tackle the thorny issue of proper responses to cyber warfare operations, the Pentagon is pressing forward with efforts to bolster its allies’ cyber defenses.

American and allied military officials were working hand-in-hand with allies in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, to identify critical “technological gaps” within military and civilian networks in those countries and close those loopholes, Davis said in an interview.

“[These] vulnerabilities . . . could put their country at risk” as well as Washington’s ability to fulfill its cooperative defense requirements with those partner nations, he added.

In addition, U.S. military officials are looking to bolster accountability for cyber defense among allied nations, to ensure when those technological gaps are closed within their networks, they stay closed, he said.

“There is only so much we can do on a voluntary basis,” Davis said last Friday, outlining the department’s ongoing efforts during a speech in Arlington, VA. Partner nations “have to do for yourself first,” he said at the time.

The ongoing effort to ramp up cyber defenses among American strategic allies is akin to the Pentagon’s long-standing advise and assist missions with partner nations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Davis said Monday.

But building partnership capacity on the battlefield is much different mission when taken into cyberspace, according to Davis.

“We have never had to [help build] cyber capacity to foreign partners before,” the two-star said. “That is something we are working up [now].”