THE BLOG
12/09/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Why Do Russia and Iran Have More Cyber Commandos Than the U.S.?

With new DOD leadership, troops returning to Iraq, and an extension of the U.S. stay in Afghanistan, doing more of the same is clearly not enough; it is time to embrace fresh national security ideas.

One of the key new approaches is the notion of special operations cyber warfare -- merging tactical computer, social network and military informational capabilities with Special Operations Forces (SOF). One would think that in the age of powerful smartphones and Google Glass that countries would have specialized cyber forces that free fall into a country, nonchalantly visit an Internet café and use some kind of James Bond-like gizmo to hijack an enemy's websites, send disruptive messages that seem to originate from an adversary's leadership, and thoroughly dominate a target's social media. And this expectation could be right -- except not for the U.S.

Unlike many other nations, especially Russia and Iran, America lacks a blended cyber and special operations capability. This is a major national security problem as recent events have clearly demonstrated the power of special operations cyber warfare. Russia's successful occupation of Crimea was greatly assisted by teams of Russian Special Operations Forces, Spetsnaz and other troops, employing and supported by a variety of cyber warfare activities -- from manipulating online social networks to disrupting regional computing. Similarly, Iran, both in its repression of its internal democratic movement and in its projection of force into Syria, has employed teams of specially trained cyber warriors to manipulate networks, target opposition leaders through social media, and influence the Internet-driven view of events. In Ukraine, Iran, and Syria, Special Operations Forces employing cyber warfare greatly enhanced their countries' military and political efforts. These successes were not flukes; today, small teams of specially trained and equipped cyber SOF warriors can affect strategic outcomes more than much larger units of conventional forces. But the U.S. lacks this hybrid cyber commando ability. It is ironic; the country that is home to Silicon Valley has fallen far behind lesser technologically developed states in the military innovation of tactical cyber capabilities.

U.S. cyber warfare reflects a mainframe organizational culture -- one big national organization controlling and directing strategic cyber combat resources -- and given the importance of electronic media in our lives, there is certainly an essential role for a country-level Internet and computer defense. Recent conflicts, however, demonstrate the additional need for a smartphone-like approach, with tactical cyber warfare capabilities pushed to the lowest operational level possible. Tactically distributed SOF cyber capabilities not only increase the probability of victory, they reduce likely American losses. Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel, Patrick Duggan recently wrote, special operations cyber capabilities "strategically offer ways to shape the physical environment while decreasing the risk exposure and attribution to U.S. forces."

Using million-dollar missiles to destroy hundred-dollar tents; killing the "jack of diamonds" again and again, green on blue attacks, all demonstrate the futility of employing traditional counter-terrorism approaches against networked adversaries. For years, prescient thinkers like Dr. John Arquilla have said that it takes a network to fight a network. Even in this interconnected global age, however, there remains a local dimension to many electronic networks. Thus network disruption often requires small, invisible teams to have close physical proximity to a hostile and violent enemy -- a role ideally suited to SOF. Creating commandos that can project force into Internet and social media nodes merges special operations with high technology, matching our best troops with our best technology. Secretary of Defense Nominee Carter would do well to learn more about and promote greater tactical cyber warfare capabilities, so that U.S. SOF have at least as much as, if not more, cyber warfare capabilities than the increasingly slick Russian and Iranian cyber operators.