Cyberwar. Is it? Isn’t it? What a palarva! Not since Mary Kaldor’s ‘New Wars/Old Wars’ have we seen such a fuss…[Okay, the fuss over this is not anywhere near as big or as wide ranging as that, but it might get there one day…besides, we need to sell this, man! Bigger, better, more controversial…the sky is the limit!]
What I find interesting about this topic is that, while new funky thinking may be required, a lot of the discussion is really going through the same steps that we have gone through in relation to conventional war. Maybe that thinking is wrongly applied, but it is certainly the case that it is happening. The similarities are apparently everywhere: Mahan’s sea power thinking (think: need to control the medium to ensure effective communications); Fuller’s Plan 1919 (think: strike at the nerve centre or brain, rather than hacking off the limbs); Douhet’s air power theory (think: the malware will always get through). Some think that cyber is the technological break through that will allow these ideas to finally come into their own.
For a more tactical example, in the armies of the West in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a long evolution in thinking about weapons. The focus was traditionally on the characteristics of a weapon, learning how to place it, etc. (A machine gun goes on the flank, fires at its optimum range, etc.) Then the thinking changed a bit, and focused more on ‘weapons effects’ (Don’t worry about where the MG goes, where do you want the bullets to fall? Then place the weapon to create the desired effect–kill the enemy, discourage him for going in one direction, strip personnel from their vehicles, etc.) Subtle, but the changes altered the way one looked at things, changed the doctrine, force models, etc.
We then went even further, and started talking about capabilities. Militaries changed from platform-centric planning to capability/delivery-based planning. If you want a hostile compound neutralised at Grid 123456 don’t be limited in your imagination and think, ‘Hey, I need a 155mm artillery strike.’ Why should you care what platform is involved? Maybe the same effect can be delivered by a close air support aircraft, or a drone, or a space-based laser. Now we see people (like the former director of the CIA) making similar observations, as they come to grips with what they believe to be cyberwar.
So, is cyberwar susceptible to the same kind of thinking? Will we see the same evolution of thought? Will any of it be valid, or just analogical but irrelevant?
This is my wonder about cyber things. Thomas Rid, of this here ‘blog, has said that cyber war is not war because it lacks the necessary definitional elements, which he claims to be violence, instrumentality, and political purpose. But isn’t that kind of like saying that academics don’t work, because the physical definition of work is mass x distance? Certainly writing a paper feels like work, we get paid like its work, it can even have an effect like work (starts a new line of thinking, or even creates a new product, etc.) [Please, spare me the comments…you get the idea].
Along that line of thought, maybe cyber war is war, it is just that our old definition is wrong, or no longer adequate to accommodate the current reality? After all, we now consider people communicating via an internet connection to be able to constitute a real community, turning the older definitions of community (based on kinship or physical propinquity) on their heads.
Let’s assume that Rid is correct: cyber war is not old war. But does that mean that it is not–or that it could not ever become–a new kind of war?
Will cyber ever be a pure-play war in and of itself? Here, I would agree with Rid. We are unlikely to see a fully and wholly cyber war.
But, I, personally, think that cyber could be old war, or more precisely, a component of old warfare. It can represent force (if not actual violence against people, it could sabotage something, like a nuclear plant, or disable a key defence, like a air defence coordination system), that if applied correctly, could create a specific effect (either on the physical plane or on the cognitive plane of an enemy or a civilian population), ultimately creating or contributing to a desired change in behaviour (surrender, bowing to our will, etc.) In that way, it can create effects, which can be instrumental, and which can be political in intent and in impact.
In this way, cyber should at least be as warlike as advertising (propaganda), psychology (information operations), electronics (radar or radio jamming), or any other ‘dual use technology’.
Or am I missing something?