Japan, US seeking to strengthen cyberdefense capabilities
TOKYO — Faced with the possibility of attacks from an "invisible enemy," the Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces are hastening to strengthen their capabilities to respond to cyberattacks.
These efforts are expected to be bolstered by an agreement made at an Oct. 3 meeting of the Japan-United States Security Consultative Committee that the SDF and U.S. military would team up to deal with major cyberattacks. The committee comprises both nations' defense and foreign ministers.
China is seen as the main impetus behind the agreement, but many issues need to be resolved for Japan to become sufficiently capable of defending against enemies in cyberspace.
"Is that possible?" was reportedly the reaction of top SDF brass when they heard the Iranian military had taken down a U.S. RQ170 stealth reconnaissance drone with a cyber-attack in December 2011.
According to reports from Iran and elsewhere, the drone was on a reconnaissance flight over a nuclear facility in eastern Iran when it was "hijacked" by hacking into its communications with ground-based facilities, then forced to land in a nearby pasture.
According to Motohiro Tsuchiya, a Keio University professor who until this month was a member of the government's information security policy council, "Technically, it's possible. It wouldn't surprise me if it actually happened."
Cyberattacks on computers are made with a wide range of objectives — including modifying websites, stealing information and disrupting nuclear power or military systems. Many techniques are used, such as inserting computer viruses or freezing networks by sending massive amounts of data.
As there have been several reports of attacks against combat systems, the ministry is increasingly concerned about cyber-emergencies.
For instance, cyberattacks successfully disabled radar networks of air-defense systems during both the Kosovo War in 1999 and Israel's bombing of Syria in 2007.
Then there is the Stuxnet virus, which the United States and Israel used to disable some of the centrifuges at Iran's nuclear facilities, setting the country's nuclear weapons program back one or two years, according to a report from a U.S. newspaper.
At an Oct. 10 press conference, SDF Joint Staff Chief Shigeru Iwasaki, the nation's highest-ranking military officer, discussed the 100-strong cyberdefense unit to be launched at the end of this fiscal year.
"One reason [for forming the unit] is that the SDF is not sufficiently prepared [to defend against cyberattacks]. The fight begins now," he said.
The SDF uses two types of systems — open systems that connect to external networks and closed systems that are completely independent.
As the systems are constantly exposed to attacks by computer viruses and other threats, the envisaged defense unit is intended to monitor them 24 hours a day and react swiftly when damage occurs.
The government also intends to unify the work of gathering and analyzing information on threats, which is currently done separately by the ground, air and marine SDF branches.
"Just like studying actual cases to help cure disease, we need to examine actual cyberattacks to figure out how to fight them," a high-ranking ministry official said.
"We used to think aircraft and warship systems were safe because they were closed, but cyberattack methods are progressing tremendously," said a high-ranking SDF member.
This increased vulnerability to cyberattacks underscores why closer ties with the U.S. military, which is on the cutting edge of cyberwarfare capabilities, are considered essential.
The Japan-U.S. Cyber Defense Policy Working Group, which the two nations agreed to create Oct. 3, is to meet about twice a year to discuss six items, including establishing a framework by which the U.S. military and SDF can share samples of viruses they encounter and carry out joint exercises.
The group will also promote the dispatch of SDF officers to the U.S. Strategic Command that oversees Cyber Command, which began full operations in October 2011.
The U.S. military has already constructed a unified defense posture for its military systems and is said to have launched offensive missions, though much about the program remains shrouded in secrecy.
"All nations treat their cyber-warfare technology as top secret, so deeper cooperation with the U.S. military could be a chance for the SDF to increase their capabilities," said another high-ranking SDF officer.