4 min

The Special Operations Command (COS) in the cyberage

During the International Cybersecurity Forum (FIC), the COS launched its first cyber challenge: “Operation Kernel 3.0”. A discreet demonstration of its digital transformation, which impacts both its equipment and its operating methods. Here is an update on the small “revolution” that is silently shaking up the warriors of the shadows.

“Operation Kernel 3.0”. It’s the name of a new cyber challenge that’s a bit special. It’s a digital treasure hunt that’s out of the ordinary. It was designed, produced and run by the experts of the Special Operations Command (COS). It was an original way for this entity, whose motto is “Do things differently“, to gently involve the general public with the thirtieth anniversary of its creation, in 1992, at the end of the first Gulf War. The unit promises parachute jumps with its operators to the winners. This custom-made digital puzzle-solving course was revealed at the International Cybersecurity Forum, where 180 players were gathered to take up the challenges of the EC2 – “European Cyber Cup”, the first eSport competition dedicated to ethical hacking.

The event chosen was anything but a coincidence. With this game, the COS is not hiding the fact that it wants to do double duty, as its sponsor, Commander Julien, who attended the FIC in person, explained to us. A cybersecurity expert with experience at the Naval Academy, the ANSSI and NATO, the officer now coordinates the integration of the cyber dimension into operations and its digital transformation: “this challenge was designed both to promote what the special forces (the “SFs”) can do in the field and to test the players’ level on technical expertise that interests us, such as encrypting and decrypting information (cryptography), obtaining information from open sources on the Internet (the “Osint”) or even analyzing computer code (reverse engineering)”.

During the FIC, Commander Julien’s teams were discreetly surveying the exhibition, looking for rare young profiles and innovative tools. For its daily needs, the COS is very fond of sovereign encryption systems or software capable of interconnecting different communication networks. More generally, it is interested in all the technological building blocks likely to accelerate and optimize the three main aspects of its work: threat assessment, decision making and action. Like all special units, the COS seeks to improve its intelligence techniques in cyberspace and to optimize the representation in its PCs of complex and evolving tactical situations or the effects it wants to produce, both in the field and in cyberspace, which is now a full-fledged theater of war. This is evidenced by the intense digital confrontation between Russians and Ukrainians, despite the relative lack of attention from Western observers on the subject. And with a constant concern for its own digital security.

The digital revolution has had a profound impact on the COS. The big turning point came in 2018, with the creation of its “cyber” department and the start of its “active defense” operations in cyberspace, in accordance with the army’s doctrine, the major parts of which former minister Florence Parly revealed in person as they were adopted. Since then, the COS has continued to grow in power in this new field of conflict. Currently, it is explained internally, cyber operations enrich the entire operational cycle of the SF. For the intelligence part, which feeds this chain, the COS differs from other special units, which operate mainly on national territory. Most of the time, it has to engage a man in what is considered hostile terrain in order to install the sensors that allow to retrieve digital information or to penetrate a digital network. This involves a significant physical risk. On the other hand, digital technology is now omnipresent. Without it, there is no question of merging the information contained in the various media (photos, satellite images, websites, telephones). It is also impossible to sort, analyze and cross-reference this data at the speed of light in order to make it speak for itself and sketch out identities and portraits of potential targets.

The COS also plays a role as a pioneer and incubator in the digital field, being “flexible, responsive and innovative”. One team is in charge of technology watch and tests innovations on a full-scale basis. Another has developed its own algorithms dedicated to data analysis for intelligence and targeting purposes. Others are able to assemble bricks to build information systems tailored to each opening of a given theater of operation. As technology evolves very quickly and the needs multiply, the COS and the SFs, which remain a small community (about 4,000 men), draw on their pool of external skills on an ad hoc basis. Commander Julien explains: “We are able to bring in specialists that we do not have in our ranks, depending on operational needs or current interests. We call on the army’s cyber combatants, who are the closest and easiest to mobilize, as well as on reservists and the private sector’s ecosystem of talent”.

In the field, as shown in the most realistic films, operators are systematically equipped with sensors (GPS beacons, radios, etc.) to enable them to geolocate themselves and report their progress in real time to the headquarters. As for the additional layer, they explain internally, the equipment still depends on the type of engagement and on the terrain. For example, it is out of the question to use a smartphone if the risk of being detected is high. Here again, the key word is adaptation. By 2030, says Commander Julien, “our vision is that all COS operators will have FS and cyber skills“.

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