TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Israel's military has inaugurated a cyberdefense control center as the Jewish state grapples with a sharp increase in cyberattacks, most of them supposedly from Iran.
At the same time, Israel is amassing a multibillion-dollar arsenal of electronic weapons to use against the Islamic Republic in a largely covert campaign but which could come out of the shadows if Israel decides to launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran's contentious nuclear program.
The Americans are increasingly concerned with China's cyberactivities, which they see a growing security threat to the nation's still highly vulnerable industrial and financial systems.
But Israel's focus is almost entirely on Iran. The Jerusalem Post quoted a senior Israeli military source as saying there's been a dramatic rise in cyberattacks on the digital infrastructure of the armed forces and Iran's seen as the culprit.
"The world of attacks is changing rapidly," he said as the new center, two years in the planning, became operational this month.
"Few countries have this kind of defense ability," he noted. "This is part of the military's readiness to ensure continuity of conventional operations. This continuity is based on cybersecurity."
The command center, operating round the clock, is manned at all times by 20 personnel but the source said that's likely to be insufficient in view of the ever-widening cyberthreats.
"Two years ago, even my most pessimistic evaluations didn't lead me to believe we'd be facing the challenges we're seeing today," the military source told the Post. "Our enemies are not stupid. They're determined and want to cause harm wherever they can."
So far as is known, Israel hasn't suffered major damage from a cyberattack but there are concerns, and the new highly classified cyberdefense center reflect this, that sooner or later the Iranians will succeed in delivering a critical blow to Israel.
There's no real indication that the diplomatic deadlock between Iran and U.S.-led Western powers over Iran's nuclear program is anywhere near being broken. But there is a growing belief Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, despite all his huffing and puffing, is unlikely to launch threatened pre-emptive strikes against Iran in 2013.
However, the Iranians can be expected to continue digital dirty tricks against the Jewish state, as well as the United States and its Persian Gulf allies whose energy industry got a whiff of Iran's growing cyber warfare capabilities in 2012 -- assaults that regional security experts fear may soon be repeated on a more damaging scale.
The Islamic Republic, one of the world's top oil exporters when it's not battered by economic sanctions, has been steadily building up its cyberdefenses since its nuclear program was sabotaged in 2010 by the Windows-based Stuxnet computer worm, reportedly planted by the United States or Israel, or in a combined operation.
"By the second half of 2014, things will be different," observed Financial Times analyst James Blitz.
"The risk is that while diplomacy is blocked, the 'shadow war' between an increasingly fearful Israel and an increasingly beleaguered Iran gets worse."
One area worth keeping an eye on, Blitz observed, "is cyber conflict, where both sides are increasingly active ...
"In short, 2013 will be an edgy year ... Israel will not take military action against the Iranian program.
"But it would be no surprise if both sides tried to gain an advantage over the other by covert means and especially in the realm of cyber conflict."
In January, U.S. Air Force Gen. William Shelton warned that the Tehran regime has significantly boosted its cyber warfare program since the Stuxnet attack on the uranium enrichment center at Natanz in central Iran.
Iran's official media claims that other nuclear facilities have also been hit by Stuxnet since then as part of the U.S.-Israeli effort to wreck Tehran's alleged plans to develop nuclear weapons.
Shelton, who's head of the U.S. Air Force Space Command and oversees its cyberoperations, cautioned that Iran is a serious threat in the realm of cyberwarfare.
"They're going to be a force to be reckoned with, with the potential capabilities they'll develop over the years and the potential threat they'll represent to the United States," he said.
In mid-2012, Western intelligence sources estimated Tehran had spent $1 billion to upgrade its cyber capabilities.