For years, cyber warfare has been a topic of concern for the world’s leading nations, all of which have outlined scenarios in which they are the victims of either a state or non-state actor using cyber weapons to carry out an attack to cripple their national power grids. As a result, a fundamental shift from defensive to offensive cyber operations is now underway in order to deter these attacks. The United States and its European ally France are at the forefront of this trend.
France and offensive cyber operations
At the beginning of 2019, French Defense Secretary Florence Parly publicly acknowledged in a speech delivered at the Forum International de Cybersecurité in Lille, France that her nation was changing its posture from “active defense” to “offensive cyber capabilities.” This was not just a throwaway line in a speech, either: it was the public articulation of a very real change in the way that France views the global cyber threat matrix. As Parly herself pointed out, “Cyber war has begun.” And France is not about to sit around idly as other nations mobilize offensive cyberspace operations (OCO).
In moving from defensive to offensive cyber operations, Parly was simply advancing the more aggressive French policy towards military cyber capabilities that had been outlined by former Defense Secretary (and now Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs) Jean-Yves Le Drian, who set up a cyber command for France back in 2016.
As Parly sees it, “The cyberweapon is not only for our enemies.” And, to follow through on that claim, Parly outlined a variety of ways that France would be beefing up its offensive cyber operations. For example, as of February 2019, France will now be operating a “Yes We Hack” partnership between France’s cyber command and tech startups around the nation. The goal of the partnership is simple: to recruit hackers to help France develop its military cyber capabilities. In addition, France will now be working on developing other private sector relationships, especially with the small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector. The goal is full private sector involvement and the engagement of what Parly refers to as “the industrial supply chain” in the cyber warfare arena.
This approach to cyber security is in stark contrast to that pursued by other European allies of France. For example, within the UK, the policy stance is still officially a defensive one. Moreover, the UK government typically only works with very large defense contractors with the requisite security clearances, rather than the entire private sector. So you can see at a glance how France is stepping up its game when it comes to cyber. France will now use cyber arms as well as other traditional weapons to respond and attack, in accordance with international law.
The United States and offensive cyber operations
In shifting from defense to offense in its cyber operations, France appears to be following the lead of the United States, which recently announced a major policy change of its own back in September 2018. At that time, the Trump Administration authorized offensive cyber operations. National Security Advisor John Bolton officially eased the rules that prevented the Department of Defense from coordinating offensive cyber attacks against the enemy.