WASHINGTON — Just before the U.S.-led strikes against Libya in March, the Obama administration intensely debated whether to open the mission with a new kind of warfare: a cyberoffensive to disrupt and even disable the Gadhafi government’s air-defense system, which threatened allied warplanes.
While the exact techniques under consideration remain classified, the goal would have been to break through the firewalls of the Libyan government’s computer networks to sever military communications links and prevent the early warning radars from gathering information and relaying it to missile batteries aiming at NATO warplanes.
But administration officials and even some military officers balked, fearing that it might set a precedent for other nations, in particular Russia or China, to carry out such offensives of their own, and questioning whether the attack could be mounted on such short notice. They were also unable to resolve whether the president had the power to proceed with such an attack without informing Congress.
In the end, U.S. officials rejected cyberwarfare and used conventional aircraft, cruise missiles and drones to strike the Libyan air-defense missiles and radars used by Moammar Gadhafi’s government.
This previously undisclosed debate among a small circle of advisers demonstrates that cyberoffensives are a growing form of warfare. The question the United States faces is whether and when to cross the threshold into overt cyberattacks.
Last year, a Stuxnet computer worm apparently wiped out a part of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and delayed its ability to produce nuclear fuel. Although no entity has acknowledged being the source of the poisonous code, some evidence suggests that the virus was a U.S.-Israeli project. And the Pentagon and military contractors regularly repel attacks on their computer networks — many coming from China and Russia.
The Obama administration is revving up the nation’s digital capabilities, while publicly emphasizing only its efforts to defend vital government, military and public infrastructure networks.
“We don’t want to be the ones who break the glass on this new kind of warfare,” said James Andrew Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he specializes in technology and national security.
That reluctance peaked during planning for the opening salvos of the Libya mission, and it was repeated on a smaller scale several weeks later, when military planners suggested a far narrower computer-network attack to prevent Pakistani radars from spotting helicopters carrying Navy Seal commandos on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2.
Again, officials decided against it. Instead, specially modified, radar-evading Black Hawk helicopters ferried the strike team, and a still-secret stealthy surveillance drone was deployed.