Imagine a scenario where a planet declares war on a nearby enemy, but the entire conflict is fought on computers. Even though the combat is simulated, citizens who are listed as virtual casualties are killed for real in a termination booth.
This was the premise of a 1967 episode of cult TV classic ‘Star Trek’, which chronicled the intergalactic adventures of captain Kirk and his crew aboard the Enterprise spaceship.
While the fictional episode was aired nearly two decades before the internet or computer games become popular, the premise has some echoes in modern warfare, where online computer hacking and virtual combat manoeuvres have increasingly become standard tactics in combat.
Termination booths are unlikely to be adopted any time soon, but retired major general Khaled Al Buainain, a former chief of the UAE’s air force, says his country’s advanced cyber infrastructure made it a favourite target for hackers, especially when tension heightened during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The last war in Gaza led to a barrage of cyber attacks because UAE has advanced telecommunications infrastructure,” Al Buainain says. “The biggest attack was during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, which was carried out by pro-Israeli hackers who did not understand the nature of the conflict and its parties.”
His comments come a few months after a virus infected 30,000 computers at Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, which was aimed at stopping oil and gas production at the world’s biggest oil exporter.
The attack failed to disrupt production, but was one of the most destructive cyber strikes against a single business. Cyber attacks on infrastructure by hostile governments, militant groups or private “hacktivists” have the potential to disrupt oil and gas supplies to power plants and desalination plants, on which the Gulf states are heavily reliant.
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“All the evidence that we have confirms that the attacks will increase,” says Robert Eastman, vice president for global solutions at Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest supplier.
Qatar’s natural gas firm Rasgas was hit by a cyber attack in September 2012, although it has not said how much damage was caused or whether it was the same virus that hit Aramco.
Similarly, in April last year, a virus targeted the Iranian oil ministry and national oil company networks, forcing Iran to disconnect the control systems of oil facilities including Kharg Island, which handles most of the country’s crude exports.
Eastman confirms the US supplier is in discussions with officials in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE about the company’s training and vulnerability analysis systems.
At present, Lockheed Martin estimates only around 5 to 8 percent of its revenues in the information systems sector are related to cyber security, with the division generating $9.4bn sales in that division in 2011.
While virtual warfare is still in its infancy, the Middle East is one of Lockheed Martin’s prime markets when it comes to supplying traditional weaponry, says Charles W. Moore, Jr, chief executive of the firm’s UAE operations and commander of the US Navy’s forces in the Gulf between 1998 and 2002.
“Our international business in 2011 was 17 percent of our revenue and [around] 20 percent in the next few years. In the Middle East it is our fastest-growing region,” he says. “It is a region full of challenges and Lockheed Martin has the portfolio and capabilities to perfectly align with what our customers are looking for.”
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