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Cyber-Attacks and Fire Support: Documents Illustrate Historic Trend in Integration of Military Technology

February 28, 2019

By Michael Martelle

On February 27th RADM(ret.) Bill Leigher, now the director of DoD Cyber Warfare Programs at Raytheon, compared cyber-attacks to the advent of airpower during an Atlantic Council panel discussion on operationalizing cyber strategies. In both cases, militaries struggled to predict how the new technology would be used in wartime and fell back on familiar frameworks. Leigher pointed out that documents on airpower in particular borrowed language from artillery.

Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act related to US military planning for the cyber-offensive against the Islamic State lend support to this comparison. The Concept of Operations (CONOP) for Operation Glowing Symphony specifically called for coordinating cyber-attacks in the same manner as kinetic strikes.


This serves as an operational illustration of how the US Military presently conceptualizes offensive cyber effects. In Joint Publication 3-09 Joint Fire Support, effects in cyberspace are explicitly defined as a form of fire support, despite their non-kinetic nature. While this framework may have been sufficient for coordinating cyber-operations with kinetic effects during Operation Inherent Resolve, it may lose utility as the role of the US Military’s Cyber Mission Force (CMF) expands.

Under a Department of Defense Cyber Strategy calling for a more forward-leaning presence and expanded authorities for action, USCYBERCOM acted to degrade Russia’s ability to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections. By first notifying individual operators that their activities were being monitored, and then directly disabling the networks of the infamous Internet Research Agency, USCYBERCOM has demonstrated an increased capability and willingness to act unilaterally in cyberspace. It is entirely possible that when documents related to these operations are declassified, researchers will find that frameworks derived from fire-support had ceased to be useful.

You can watch the entire Atlantic Council discussion below:

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