Hours after Iran shot down a US surveillance drone, American military hackers launched a cyberattack against a database used by the Islamic Republic to target oil tankers and shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf, according to the Washington Post, citing US officials.
The strike was President Trump's alternative to a recommended military airstrike, the Iranian deaths from which which would not be "proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone."
Iran claims the drone flew into its airspace, while the US claims it was in international airspace.
US Cyber Command did not address the operation, telling the Post "As a matter of policy and for operational security, we do not discuss cyberspace operations, intelligence, or planning."
According to the report, the cyberstrike had been in the works for weeks, "if not months," after Iran's suspected attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman in early June.
Officials also told the Post that the cyber response shows how the Pentagon is "expanding its repertoire of options to integrate cyber into military plan," and how Cybercom - which coordinated the strike with US Central Command, " is able to support regional commanders to achieve strategic aims — in this case to preserve freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most important shipping lanes."
The drone downing and retaliatory computer attack reflect how increasingly hostilities are playing out below the threshold of use of force, in what is often called the “gray zone.”
The cyberstrike was designed to be debilitating — Iran is still trying to restore data — but proportionate and not so provocative as to result in escalation, officials said. -Washington Post
"When you’re in this realm there’s always the chance for miscalculation," said one US official, adding "there were concerns generally about Iranian responses," particularly against US or Israeli interests.
And as the Post notes, the cyberattack "represents a flexing of offensive muscle by Cyber Command, led by Gen. Paul Nakasone." Cyber Command was elevated to a full combatant command in May 2018.
"To the extent that Iran is conducting unlawful operations, I think [the cyberstrike] was an appropriate measure to take to preclude their ability to conduct further unlawful operations," said international law professor at the US Naval War College, Michael Schmitt. "Sometimes cyberspace allows you to take operations that are not as escalatory as other options on the table. And this would strike me as one such operation."
The last time the US (almost certainly) hacked Iran was in 2010, when the Stuxnet virus (suspected to have been created by Israel and the United States) was inserted into Iranian computer systems governing their nuclear centrifuges, causing them to wobble and tear themselves apart. The virus reportedly ruined nearly 20% of Iran's nuclear centrifuges.