"We have been alive to the (cyber) threat for some time, but the nature of the threat is expanding quite rapidly. With Internet of Things (IoT) and everything around our life getting interconnected, we suddenly realise the potential of the threat to be enormous. In preparation we are still lacking a bit as the organisational structures that are needed to counter this are not in place," Lt. General (retd) D.S. Hooda told IANS in an interview.
Hooda, who specialises in the field, said that with critical infrastructure and military installations getting connected through the internet, the threat of cyber attacks was becoming increasingly lethal and that an emerging India was particularly at risk of such attacks.
Calling cyber warfare the "fifth dimension" of war -- after land, water, air and space -- Hooda said that India was ranked third in terms of facing threats of cyber warfare but was at 23rd position when it comes to preparedness to deal with them.
"Since India is growing economically, diplomatically and politically, people will target us. It's the weapon of weaker nations against stronger nations. I see no reason why Pakistan would hesitate to use it against us," said Hooda, who was the architect of the famous surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016 as the Northern Army Command chief.
He said there had not been enough discussion and debate on the strategic aspect of cyber warfare, otherwise an integrated cyber command would have been in place by now.
But how damaging can a cyber war be?
"Well, a lot of people say that so many cyber attacks have already happened yet not a single person has been killed. But I think that has got to do with intentions. In these attacks, so far, the intent was not to do that (kill people), but the capability definitely exists," Hooda said.
"If you get into infrastructure, for example, related to dams, and you are able to flood some areas, or you get into the command control networks... there is talk that the Americans did get into the North Korean missile programme and managed to do some damage to that. So I think the potential exists for what you can do with it because our lives are so interconnected now," he said.
"It can actually impact each sphere of your life. So rather than saying that it has not happened till now, I think what we should look at is whether the capability of kinetic damage to human life exists, and I think it does exist right now," Hooda said.
He said the more we get interconnected, the more risk we face.
What are the various aspects of cyber warfare? Hooda said that in such attacks normally weaker, hostile countries are involved and they carry out targeted attacks on critical infrastructure or military installations of the rival country, including spreading disinformation to create societal unrest.
"The example of this you saw in the US elections when social media was used to influence the voters. Whether that actually happened or not is a matter of investigation. When you combine all this, that's why we are now defining cyber as the fifth dimension of warfare. After air, land, sea and space, now you see cyber warfare becoming an integral component of the overall war," Hooda said.
"See what happened between Russia and Ukraine. Twice the Russians got into the power grid of Ukraine and shut down the power supply to thousand of households. It happened in Estonia in 2007. So this is what we are talking about when we say cyber warfare," he added.
He said that, earlier, the defence establishment looked at this in a "limited way", something confined to, say, the communication system.
"Then we suddenly saw that more and more critical infrastructure had started to get connected to the internet. You heard about cyber command and how the British have put up such a command structure in place. For some reason, there has been a lot of delay. I hope this defence cyber agency comes through. But unless you have structures in place to be able to deal with this threat we are going to be found wanting in case of a serious cyber attack," Hooda said.
Asked if we have ever attacked Pakistan in the cyber space, the general just smiled and said: "These are classified intelligence operations. So I will not comment on that. All I can tell you is that, yes, we have the capability."
(Asim Khan can be reached on email@example.com)
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