More than 30,000 Australian and American troops were involved in operation Talisman Sabre. (Supplied: ADF )
We could already be at war in cyberspace — that is the proposition the Australian military is grappling with as it engages in massive war games off the Queensland coast.
The biggest military exercise in the Pacific, Talisman Sabre, kicked off this week with a spectacular show of force.
The biggest amphibious landing Australia has executed since WWII took place on the beaches of Shoalwater Bay, near Rockhampton.
The war games involve 30,000 Australian and American troops — that is about the same size as Australia’s entire Army.
But as warships dot the coastline and jets and helicopters scream and growl through the skies, there are skirmishes going on far from the physical frontline.
Australia and the United States are also rehearsing battle manoeuvres in cyberspace this year.
Military bosses say the exercise must reflect every theatre of war.
“These are essentially incubators for emerging threats,” US Army Brigadier General Peter Andrysiak said.
“The cyber threat, as it changes all the time, and the domains that are being introduced in the battlefield”.
Military bosses say the exercise must reflect every theatre of war. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue )
Are we already fighting a war?
In modern conflict, the fighting can begin long before a country is officially “at war”.
Deciding which cyber threats to respond to — and how — takes time. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue )
“Arguably, there is a warfighting domain in which there is already activity underway,” the head of Forces Command, Major General Gus McLachlan, said.
There is accumulating evidence the first salvos have already been fired, though the combatants are not in full view.
China and North Korea already have dedicated cyber warfare forces, and hacking has long been part of the battleplan for Russia in Ukraine.
The parameters of the battle, if it has progressed beyond what would be called surveillance and reconnaissance into true war, are ill-defined.
“Generally, when someone has used force against us, [the] Government gives us rules of engagement and we have a way to respond,” General McLachlan said.
“We are still thinking through what the doctrine of [cyberwar] means for us.”
That includes defining what constitutes an act of war within the virtual realm.
“What is an attack in cyberspace?” General McLachlan asked.
“Even acknowledging it may give away something.
“This is new ground and, I’ll be honest with you, we’re still working on what these definitions mean.”
As warships dot the coastline and jets and helicopters scream and growl through the skies, there are skirmishes going on far from the physical front line. (Supplied: ADF )
Which cybercrimes to respond to?
Initiating and responding to an attack cyberspace can backfire by revealing a military’s capabilities.
“These are really significant decisions to take; whether you might activate a particular tool versus another tool, or whether you might keep it in the locker,” General McLachlan said.
He draws a comparison with the Allied decision not to reveal they had broken the German Enigma code in World War II, sacrificing many lives in the bid to keep their breakthrough a secret.
Deciding which cyber threats to respond to — and how — is taking time.
The West was slow to dominate the virtual terrain in the fight against Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Wresting back control of the information war was a key turning point in that ongoing conflict.
The stakes are considerably higher when it comes to confronting states that try to disrupt the political or military systems of another state through cyber capabilities.
In modern conflict, the fighting can begin long before a country is officially “at war”. (Supplied: ADF )
What does a cyberwar exercise look like?
Talisman Sabre revolves around a highly-scripted scenario.
The country of “Tetta” has been invaded by its neighbours — the US and Australia are acting on a United Nations mandate to defend it.
While the countries are fictional, it is based on real-world events.
“We’re watching what’s happening all over the world at the moment very carefully,” General McLachlan said.
He said this year’s scenario reflected the asymmetrical warfare being waged in the Crimean Peninsula, plus elements of recent conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
In this mock war, the “enemy” will hack and disrupt.
It will knock out the kind of digital systems and communication tools that keep an army on the move.
The main force must defend its own systems and mount attacks in cyberspace before to win the ground war.
“You might use cyber means to disrupt an enemy’s ability to manoeuvre their own reserve forces,” General McLachlan said.
“If a sentry overlooking the beach you want to use is trying to communicate with their headquarters but can’t get through, you’ve achieved a warfighting effect.”