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Jewish World Review
Oct. 4, 2010
/ 26 Tishrei, 5771
The lessons of Stuxnet
Caroline B. Glick
It is important to pointout some plain truths today, as the excitement builds about the recently discovered malicious software virus that may well end the Iran crisis
There's a new cyber-weapon on the block. And it's a doozy. Stuxnet, a malicious
software, or malware, program was apparently first discovered in
Although it has appeared in India, Pakistan and Indonesia, Iran's
industrial complexes including its nuclear installations are its main
Stuxnet operates as a computer worm. It is inserted into a
computer system through a USB port rather than over the Internet, and is
therefore capable of infiltrating networks that are not connected to the
Hamid Alipour, deputy head of Iran's Information Technology
Company, told reporters Monday that the malware operated undetected in the
country's computer systems for about a year.
After it enters a network,
this super-intelligent program figures out what it has penetrated and then
decides whether or not to attack. The sorts of computer systems it enters are
those that control critical infrastructures like power plants, refineries and
other industrial targets.
Ralph Langner, a German computer security
researcher who was among the first people to study Stuxnet, told various media
outlets that after Stuxnet recognizes its specific target, it does something no
other malware program has ever done. It takes control of the facility's SCADA
(supervisory control and data acquisition system) and through it, is able to
destroy the facility.
No other malware program has ever managed to move
from cyberspace to the real world. And this is what makes Stuxnet so
revolutionary. It is not a tool of industrial espionage. It is a weapon
From what researchers have exposed so far, Stuxnet was designed
to control computer systems produced by the German engineering giant Siemens.
Over the past generation, Siemens engineering tools, including its industrial
software, have been the backbone of Iran's industrial and military
infrastructure. Siemens computer software products are widely used in Iranian
electricity plants, communication systems and military bases, and in the
country's Russian-built nuclear power plant at Bushehr.
government has acknowledged a breach of the computer system at Bushehr. The
plant was set to begin operating next month, but Iranian officials announced the
opening would be pushed back several months due to the damage wrought by
Stuxnet. On Monday, Channel 2 reported that Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment
facility was also infected by Stuxnet.
On Tuesday, Alipour acknowledged
that Stuxnet's discovery has not mitigated its destructive power.
put it, "We had anticipated that we could root out the virus within one to two
months. But the virus is not stable and since we started the cleanup process,
three new versions of it have been spreading."
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While so far no one has
either taken responsibility for Stuxnet or been exposed as its developer,
experts who have studied the program agree that its sophistication is so vast
that it is highly unlikely a group of privately financed hackers developed it.
Only a nation-state would have the financial, manpower and other resources
necessary to develop and deploy Stuxnet, the experts argue.
pointed an accusatory finger at the US, Israel and India. So far, most analysts
are pointing their fingers at Israel. Israeli officials, like their US
counterparts, are remaining silent on the subject.
While news of a
debilitating attack on Iran's nuclear installations is a cause for celebration,
at this point, we simply do not know enough about what has happened and what is
continuing to happen at Iran's nuclear installations to make any reasoned
evaluation about Stuxnet's success or failure. Indeed, The New York Times has
argued that since Stuxnet worms were found in Siemens software in India,
Pakistan and Indonesia as well as Iran, reporting, "The most striking aspect of
the fast-spreading malicious computer program... may not have been how
sophisticated it was, but rather how sloppy its creators were in letting a
specifically aimed attack scatter randomly around the globe."
ALL THAT we
know for certain is that Stuxnet is a weapon and it is currently being used to
wage a battle. We don't know if Israel is involved in the battle or not. And if
Israel is a side in the battle, we don't know if we're winning or
But still, even in our ignorance about the details of this battle,
we still know enough to draw a number of lessons from what is
Stuxnet's first lesson is that it is essential to be a leader
rather than a follower in technology development. The first to deploy new
technologies on a battlefield has an enormous advantage over his rivals. Indeed,
that advantage may be enough to win a war.
But from the first lesson, a
second immediately follows. A monopoly in a new weapon system is always
fleeting. The US nuclear monopoly at the end of World War II allowed it to
defeat Imperial Japan and bring the war to an end in allied victory.
the US exposed its nuclear arsenal, however, the Soviet Union's race to acquire
nuclear weapons of its own began. Just four years after the US used its nuclear
weapons, it found itself in a nuclear arms race with the Soviets. America's
possession of nuclear weapons did not shield it from the threat of their
The risks of proliferation are the flipside to the
advantage of deploying new technology. Warning of the new risks presented by
Stuxnet, Melissa Hathaway, a former US national cybersecurity coordinator, told
the Times, "Proliferation is a real problem, and no country is prepared to deal
with it. All of these [computer security] guys are scared to death. We have
about 90 days to fix this [new vulnerability] before some hacker begins using
Then there is the asymmetry of vulnerability to cyberweapons. A
cyberweapon like Stuxnet threatens nation-states much more than it threatens a
non-state actor that could deploy it in the future. For instance, a cyber-attack
of the level of Stuxnet against the likes of Hizbullah or al-Qaida by a state
like Israel or the US would cause these groups far less damage than a Hizbullah
or al-Qaida cyber-attack of the quality of Stuxnet launched against a developed
country like Israel or the US.
In short, like every other major new
weapons system introduced since the slingshot, Stuxnet creates new strengths as
well as new vulnerabilities for the states that may wield it.
As to the
battle raging today in Iran's nuclear facilities, even if the most optimistic
scenario is true, and Stuxnet has crippled Iran's nuclear installations, we must
recognize that while a critical battle was won, the war is far from
A war ends when one side permanently breaks its enemy's ability and
will to fight it. This has clearly not happened in Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made it manifestly clear during his visit to the
US last week that he is intensifying, not moderating, his offensive stance
towards the US, Israel and the rest of the free world. Indeed, as IDF Deputy
Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Benny Ganz noted last week, "Iran is involved up to its
neck in every terrorist activity in the Middle East."
So even in the
rosiest scenario, Israel or some other government has just neutralized one
threat albeit an enormous threat among a panoply of threats that Iran poses.
And we can be absolutely certain that Iran will take whatever steps are
necessary to develop new ways to threaten Israel and its other foes as quickly
What this tells us is that if Stuxnet is an Israeli weapon,
while a great achievement, it is not a revolutionary weapon. While the tendency
to believe that we have found a silver bullet is great, the fact is that
fielding a weapon like Stuxnet does not fundamentally change Israel's strategic
position. And consequently, it should have no impact on Israel's strategic
In all likelihood, assuming that Stuxnet has significantly
debilitated Iran's nuclear installations, this achievement will be a one-off.
Just as the Arabs learned the lessons of their defeat in 1967 and implemented
those lessons to great effect in the war in 1973, so the Iranians and the rest
of Israel's enemies will learn the lessons of Stuxnet.
SO IF we assume
that Stuxnet is an Israeli weapon, what does it show us about Israel's position
vis-à-vis its enemies? What Stuxnet shows is that Israel has managed to maintain
its technological advantage over its enemies. And this is a great relief. Israel
has survived since 1948 despite our enemies' unmitigated desire to destroy us
because we have continuously adapted our tactical advantages to stay one step
ahead of them. It is this adaptive capability that has allowed Israel to win a
series of one-off battles that have allowed it to survive.
none of these one-off battles were strategic game-changers. None of them have
fundamentally changed the strategic realities of the region. This is the case
because they have neither impacted our enemies' strategic aspiration to destroy
us, nor have they mitigated Israel's strategic vulnerabilities. It is the
unchanging nature of these vulnerabilities since the dawn of modern Zionism that
gives hope to our foes that they may one day win and should therefore keep
Israel has two basic strategic vulnerabilities.
first is Israel's geographic minuteness, which attracts invaders. The second
vulnerability is Israel's political weakness both at home and abroad, which make
it impossible to fight long wars.
Attentive to these vulnerabilities,
David Ben- Gurion asserted that Israel's military doctrine is the twofold goal
to fight wars on our enemies' territory and to end them as swiftly and as
decisively as possible. This doctrine remains the only realistic option today,
even if Stuxnet is in our arsenal.
It is important to point this plain
truth out today as the excitement builds about Stuxnet, because Israel's leaders
have a history of mistaking tactical innovation and advantage with strategic
transformation. It was our leaders' failure to properly recognize what happened
in 1967 for the momentary tactical advantage it was that led us to near disaster
Since 1993, our leaders have consistently mistaken their
adoption of the West's land-forpeace paradigm as a strategic response to
Israel's political vulnerability. The fact that the international assault on
Israel's right to exist has only escalated since Israel embraced the landfor-
peace paradigm is proof that our leaders were wrong. Adopting the political
narrative of our enemies did not increase Israel's political fortunes in Europe,
the US or the UN. So, too, our leaders have mistaken Israel's air
superiority for a strategic answer to its geographical vulnerability.
missile campaigns the Palestinians and Lebanese have waged against the
front in the aftermath of Israel's withdrawals from Gaza and south
clearly that air supremacy does not make up for geographic
certainly does not support a view that strategic depth is less important
We may never know if Stuxnet was successful or if Stuxnet is
Israeli. But what we do know is that we cannot afford to learn the wrong
from its achievements.
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JWR contributor Caroline B. Glick is the senior Middle East Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.
© 2009, Caroline B. Glick