JERUSALEM - Cyber warfare has quietly grown into a central pillar of Israel's strategic planning, with a new military intelligence unit set up to incorporate high-tech hacking tactics, Israeli security sources said on Tuesday.
Israel's pursuit of options for sabotaging the core computers of foes like Iran, along with mechanisms to protect its own sensitive systems, were unveiled last year by the military intelligence chief, Major-General Amos Yadlin.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since set cyber warfare as a national priority, "up there with missile shields and preparing the homefront to withstand a future missile war", a senior source said on condition of anonymity.
Disclosures that a sophisticated computer worm, Stuxnet, was uncovered at the Bushehr atomic reactor and may have burrowed deeper into Iran's nuclear programme prompted foreign experts to suggest the Israelis were responsible.
Israel has declined to comment on any specific operations. Analysts say cyber capabilities offer it a stealthy alternative to the air strikes that it has long been expected to launch against Iran but which would face enormous operational hurdles as well as the risk of triggering regional war.
According to security sources, over the last two years the military intelligence branch, which specialises in wiretaps, satellite imaging and other electronic espionage, has set up a dedicated cyber warfare unit staffed by conscripts and officers.
They would not say how much of the unit's work is offensive, but noted that Israeli cyber defences are primarily the responsibility of the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet.
In any event, fending off or inflicting damage to sensitive digital networks are interconnected disciplines. Israeli high-tech firms, world leaders in information security, often employ veterans of military computing units.
Security sources said Israel awoke to the potential of cyber warfare in the late 1990s, when the Shin Bet hacked into a fuel depot to test security measures and then realised the system could be reprogrammed to crash or even cause explosions.
Israel's defence priorities suggest it may be shying away from open confrontation with the Iranians, whose nuclear facilities are distant, numerous, dispersed and well-fortified.
Even were its warplanes to manage a successful sortie, Israel would almost certainly suffer retaliatory Iranian missile salvoes worse than the short-range rocket attacks of Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas in the 2006 and 2009 wars.
There would be a wider diplomatic reckoning: World powers are in no rush to see another Middle East conflagration, especially while sanctions are still being pursued against an Iranian nuclear programme which Tehran insists is peaceful.
An Israeli security source said Defence Ministry planners were still debating the relative merits of cyber warfare.
"It's deniable, and it's potent, but the damage it delivers is very hard to track and quantify," the source said. "When you send in the jets -- the target is there, and then it's gone." (Editing by Jon Boyle)
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