The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is creating a “cyber command” to bolster its defenses amid a wave of recent online attacks on Philippine companies and government institutions, its commander said yesterday.
Speaking at a media forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, Gen. Romeo Brawner said that the AFP planned to relax its recruitment rules to ensure it can attract the experts necessary to fortify its cyber-defences.
“Instead of recruiting soldiers for infantry battalions, this time we will recruit cyber warriors,” Brawner told reporters. “There is this general realization that this new breed of warriors does not have to be muscle strong.”
The Philippines military already has a cyber security group that tracks and protects the country from attacks. But the plan was to expand this into a full-fledged “Cyber Security Command or Cyber Command” that will be equipped with vastly more resources and personnel. Brawner said that the cyber domain “is one of the more important domains in warfare, especially in the future.”
“Our plan is to create a cyber armed forces occupational service,” he added. “So the soldiers we are going to recruit for this will not have to go through the normal process because we understand that some of them will not be able to cope. What we are after is their skills and intellect when it comes to cyber.”
The announcement is perhaps unsurprising. Malicious cyberattacks by state and non-state actors are a growing problem, and the Philippine government has reported a growing number of cyberattacks against government institutions. This week, the websites of the House of Representatives and Senate were attacked by unknown cyber-assailants and were briefly taken offline. According to the Philippine Star, the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., the Department of Science and Technology, and the Philippine Statistics Authority have also been recently attacked and suffered data leaks as a result.
The string of attacks prompted President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to call last week for the Department of Information and Communications Technology to beef up its defenses against cyber attackers.
According to a recent cyber threat assessment published by the consulting firm Cyfirma, the Philippines “faces significant cybersecurity challenges, making it highly susceptible to cyberattacks.” Among the factors contributing to this vulnerability, the assessment stated, were the country’s “widespread internet usage, a lack of cybersecurity awareness, and underdeveloped cybersecurity infrastructure.”
It cited a major data breach in April 2023, which exposed the personal information of millions of Filipinos, including records from crucial institutions like the Philippine National Police, National Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Internal Revenue, and Special Action Force. Stolen data logs from compromised Philippine government subdomains have later cropped up on the Russian black market. It also identified a “a surge in ransomware attacks within the Philippines, with sectors like finance, government, healthcare, education, and retail being primary targets.”
Brawner said that cyberattacks on Philippine government institutions were now taking place nearly on a daily basis. While none had been successful, he said that the AFP believed some came from foreign actors. The commander did not say where he believed the attacks were coming from, nor what was motivating them, but the past year has seen increasing confrontations between Philippine and Chinese vessels in contested parts of the South China Sea.
According to the Cyfirma report, the Philippines has recently been subject to cyberattacks by China’s People’s Liberation Army that have targeted “government institutions related to trade, defense, and external affairs.” It has also recently been attacked by a “Russian-speaking” ransomware group and hackers from South Korea.
How many of these are directly part of a broader geopolitical strategy remains unclear, especially given the often fuzzy line between state and non-state actors. But given the Philippines’ vulnerabilities, it is only prudent for the AFP to take the necessary precautions.