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Russia, China, Iran and North Korea routinely launch cyberattacks

on civilian areas, hacking private companies or undermining


foreign militaries, using online tools to manipulate information
or digital propaganda to shape others' opinions, and employing
digital mercenaries to do the work.

The Chinese military stole U.S. plans to the technically


sophisticated F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, allowing Beijing to
create the copycat J-31. Hackers with connections to the Iranian
government were charged earlier this year for attacks on U.S.
banks and a dam in New York. North Korean operatives released a
trove of damaging emails from Sony as the entertainment company
planned to release a comedy with an unflattering portrayal of the
country's leader. And Russia is widely suspected in a hack of the
Democratic National Committee that could amount to a bid to
undermine the integrity of the upcoming U.S. election.

The U.S., as of right now, is not fully prepared to match


incidents like these.

In Georgia and now in Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated its


ability to integrate full-scale cyberwar into its military
maneuvers, further threatening U.S. allies along its border. But
shortcomings with such 21st-century tactics plague America's
military, which emerged from the Cold War, dedicated 15 years to
fighting insurgencies in the Middle East and now faces the
potential for a different kind of combat against potential foes
who time and time again have tested its cyber capabilities.

Complicating the ability to hit back nimbly are strict policies


on how the U.S. is willing to conduct digital warfare. There are
hard-line and at times overly dense barriers between cyber
operators cleared to carry out the government's business and
those who aren't, even though the latter often find themselves
inadvertently at the front lines of digital warfare. War planners
often lump all digital instruments under the homogenous subject
"cyber," even though that represents a broad variety of tools and
mediums, and don't yet have policies governing how to respond if
forced to. And, perhaps most importantly, the U.S. has
proportionately little experience with this kind of battle in the
real world.

"The assumptions for a lot of us in this space is the nations who


have been at combat the longest would have developed a robust way
of including these tools into battlefield use," says Jason
Healey, an Air Force veteran and frequent adviser to the White
House, Pentagon and private sector, now a senior research scholar
at Columbia University.

Too many U.S. combat commanders believe developing cyber tools is


as clear-cut a process as making and employing conventional
weapons. Bombs or bullets, for example, produce reliable effects
each time the military chooses to employ them, and everyone along
the chain of command understands the specific consequences of
doing so.

"I don't see us having that kind of confidence at any one of


those levels," Healey says of the current cyber alternatives.

America's cyber shortcomings were at the center of a


congressional hearing earlier this month during which Sen. John
McCain, the chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee,
pressed the nation's two top officials for digital combat to
appraise the military's ability to respond to cyber aggression.

"The cyber threat is one of the greatest challenges we face,"


offered Marcel Lettre, undersecretary of defense for
intelligence.

The Arizona Republican prodded, citing former Joint Chiefs


Chairman Martin Dempsey's troubling acknowledgement in January
2015 that cyber is the only major field of warfare in which the
U.S. doesn't have an advantage over its foes.

"It's a level playing field," the Army general said at the time,
"and that makes this chairman very uncomfortable."