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Japan Is Preparing Its Cyberwarfare Defenses

May 28, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Many aspects of Japan’s national security priorities for this year haven’t received enough attention. These can be found in the public document Defense Programs and Budget of Japan – Overview of FY2020 Budget Request (available for download here) and the parts that deal with cyber matters are worth exploring. Japan’s national security is now being geared to face imminent threats from its neighbors, with China foremost and a lesser risk presented by North Korea. In its latest budget request the defense ministry (MOD) wants the SDF to have the resources for cross-domain operations. Found on page 6 of the document is the full scope of their ambitions.

Enhancing resources for beating cyber attacks and securing networks falls under “Priorities for strengthening capabilities necessary for cross-domain operations.” The MOD describes these as “a defense capability, which organically fuses capabilities in…space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum…capable of sustained conduct of flexible and strategic activities during all phases from peacetime to armed contingencies.” When the MOD cites armed contingencies these do mean an actual shooting war that may break out with a foreign adversary.

For “Capabilities in Cyber Domain” the MOD lists four requests or priorities. First, the Cyber Defense Group adds more personnel from 220 to 290. Second, an expensive “Cyber Information Gathering System” powered by artificial intelligence will be procured. Regarding the second request, the MOD envisions a powerful AI as a firewall and analytic tool for scrutinizing and assessing harmful emails. The third request is “develop a CyberWorkforce” with help from the US’ own Cyber Command and organize courses and exercises for wargaming cyber operations. Fourth, the MOD wants secure “Defense Information Infrastructure” against cyber attacks.

The last request is the most expensive totaling $816 million when converted using today’s exchange rate. By comparison the request for an AI-enabled firewall whose job is to “autonomously identify distinct malicious emails and judge the level of threat” is expected to cost less than $300,000 and a separate study on networked devices utilizing 5G is even cheaper at $185,000. An intriguing detail in the MOD’s “Capabilities in Cyber Domain” is the information gathering system for analyzing “tactics, techniques, and procedures of cyber attacks against the MOD” whose hefty price tag reached $220 million.

The MOD’s budget requests are never definitive and some efforts may take years. But the emphasis on tools for intelligence gathering, information networks, and electronic warfare reveals how Tokyo envisions its threat environment in the years to come. When it comes to the cyber domain it’s China own well-practiced espionage and intrusion operations that are Japan’s biggest worry. The PLA does have its own shadowy hacking unit that operates under a signals intelligence command but its known work is cyber espionage rather than disruptive cyber attacks on an adversary’s critical infrastructure and networks.

The way the MOD sees its Cyber Defense Group in its budget request is very interesting. Like China’s own hackers in uniform, the “group” is under a signals intelligence brigade but with a specific mission for protecting the comms networks of the JGSDF, or the Japanese army. Since the MOD’s budget requests specifies 70 new hires to boost the existing organization with its 220 members a role outside securing networks could be embraced in the future. It’s common for militaries who build their own “cyber units” to enlarge these and assign offensive tasks when the talent pool allows for such flexibility between roles.

Defense Programs and Budget of Japan – Overview of FY2020 Budget Request is available as a free download from Japan’s defense ministry.

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