World Economic Forum, in its yearly Global Risks Reports, has included cyber threats among the top 10 critical risks to the world. Initially, it was believed that since cyber-warfare falls in the electronic domain, its consequences will remain intangible in nature. However, in recent years, as far as the attainment of objectives is concerned, cyber-warfare has demonstrated physicality, just like traditional kinetic warfare. Unlike conventional weapons, cyber weapons have instantaneous projection independent of time and space. To overcome the inherent limitations of physical resources, Israel has capitalised on cyber innovation.
Israel was the first country to create a dedicated governmental cyber agency in 1997 called Tehila. Tehila was meant to ensure secure internet connectivity among governmental authorities. In warfare, Israel was also the first nation to employ cyber weapons to subdue its prime threat, i.e. Iran’s nuclear program. A malicious computer worm called Stuxnet was a collaborative product of Israel and the United States. The ability of cyber weapons to deliver remarkable damage in the physical realm was exhibited for the first time by Stuxnet. It was purpose-built to target the Iranian nuclear program. Uncovered firstly in 2010, Stuxnet caused substantial damage by penetrating within supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems of Iranian uranium enrichment facilities and crippled key components by operating them beyond safety limits.
Israel also employed cyber weapons in conjunction with traditional weapon systems for the first time. During Operation Orchard (2007), Israel allegedly used cyber tools to suppress the Syrian air defence system for allowing covert penetration of Israel Air Force (IAF) strike formation in Syrian air space. The operation involved the successful destruction of a suspected Syrian nuclear site, called the al-Kibar facility in Dayr Az-Zawr province. By successfully incorporating the cyber and traditional weapon systems, Israel executed this operation without any losses.
An interesting feature of a cyber-attack is that it leaves no evidence trail, and thus the original source of the attack is hard to trace. Israel has repeatedly used this feature to its political advantage. For example, on July 2, 2020, a mysterious explosion damaged a centrifuge facility in Natanz, Iran. Tehran blamed Israel’s cyber-sabotage for the attack but failed to provide credible evidence. Similarly, on April 2021, Iran held Israel responsible for the power blackout at Natanz nuclear facility moments after the inauguration of new centrifuges. But Israel, just like the previous incident, denied any involvement. By taking advantage of plausible deniability and repeatedly targeting Iran’s critical nuclear facilities, Israel has managed to delay Tehran’s nuclearisation efforts without facing political backlash.
The Israel Defence Force (IDF) observes cyberspace as “a platform to improve operational effectiveness and defence.” As exemplified earlier, Israel’s cyber posture is based upon the simultaneous employment of offensive and defensive capabilities. From an offensive perspective, Israel has utilised cyber weapons to disrupt and damage the enemy’s assets. From a defensive standpoint, Israel has strengthened the cyber security and cyber-recovery of governmental and civilian sectors. Tel Aviv seeks to establish cyber deterrence against potential adversaries by emphasising this dual-fold posture. This posture conveys that any cyber-attack against Israel will yield little to no strategic benefit but will result in aggressive retaliatory outcomes.
Currently, the IDF employs two primary cyber-bodies, i.e., the elite Unit 8200 and the C4I Directorate. In June 2015, a plan was announced by IDF to merge both into a dedicated cyber command. However, the unification plan was cancelled two years later. Instead, it was decided that the capacity building of both institutes would be done separately. C4I Directorate will be transformed into an operational command with authority to act and respond independently. Besides existing cyber protective duties, C4I Directorate will additionally be charged with counter-attacks and active-defence responsibilities to pre-empt and deter cyber threats. The Lotem unit in C4I is investing in strengthening Israel’s communication and computing capabilities to maintain the operational advantage of IDF over its adversaries. While Unit 8200, the largest single unit command in IDF working under the military intelligence for signal intelligence (SIGINT) and code decryption, will be augmented to widen the scope of its intel-gathering and offensive cyber capabilities.
As Israel engages in persistent cyber skirmishes, it continues cultivating its cyber potential. Today, Israel is setting new benchmarks regarding cyber warfare. During the Cyber-tech conference in the year 2017 in Tel Aviv, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech, said, “A few years ago, I set the goal for Israel of becoming one of the top five cyber security powers in the world. It’s a goal we have met.”
His words are not political rhetoric. Today, with 470 cyber-security startups active, Israel is the second largest cyber-security cluster in the world. Besides governmental institutes, the private cyber business sector is also thriving in Israel, attracting almost one-fifth of global private investment in cyber security. Today, more than one-third are from Israel. In the first half of 2020 alone, Israel’s cyber security firms scored a record $3.4B (41% of the global sector) investment. This amount increased to a whopping $8.8B in the year 2021. This trend is likely to continue in the coming years.
The private cyber security companies are essentially the extension of Israel’s national cyber apparatus. Global tech giants, like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Intel, etc., are deepening their investment in Israel’s cybersecurity apparatus to better expand and secure their businesses concerning the emerging trends of the cyber world. With time, Israel is attracting more and more attention as a hub of cyber tech in the world.
The aforementioned realities raise a few fundamental questions. In what capacity will Israel utilise its cyber potential in future? And in what shape Israel’s cyber prowess will transform? From building up the cyber economy to ensuring cyber domination in the military, Israel is eyeing to revolutionise all spheres of modern life. This new, distinctive cyber dimension will be dominated by technological powerhouses, including Israel, and will play an authoritative role in shaping the future world.