Cyber, cyber everywhere; quite a lot to think: Is this a new Albatross in old clothing?

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?

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6 thoughts on “Cyber, cyber everywhere; quite a lot to think: Is this a new Albatross in old clothing?

  1. Ian K says:

    I’m working on a paper on this very subject, and at this early stage in the reading, I’m inclined to agree with you.

    With so much economic activity, infrastructure control, and strategic communication going through the internet, and with so little in the way of safeguards, it seems to me inconceivable that states won’t try to damage one another (or coerce with the threat of damage) by launching cyber attacks. And, of course, we’ve already seen it happen. Saying this activity is not war is like saying a naval blockade isn’t war because no one is attacking the blockading vessels. Possibly true, depending on how you define things, but missing the point, I think. Taking down key centers of economic activity, communication, or infrastructure may not directly cause any violent deaths, but it is a destructive action that costs jobs or military readiness – in short, it is the use of force, and is likely to provoke the use of force in response, not necessarily the virtual kind.

    However, we are still figuring out what the ‘rules’ of force are in cyberspace. We’ve all had run-ins with ‘low-yield’ cyberweapons and know how ubiquitous they are, and difficult to defend against. On the other hand, Stuxnet for all its sophistication was apparently little more than a speed bump in Iran’s nuclear development. So attacking is easy, cheap, and nearly anonymous, but actually achieving one’s objectives is just as problematic as with any other use of force.

  2. Chirality says:

    Wholly agree with both FB and Ian K.

    Definition matters here of course. When does military cyber-espionage turn into cyber war? Is cyber war just a continuum with extremes of intensity – at one end, covert & deniable in peacetime, but overt and increasing in yield when in open conflict?

    This thread interestingly coincides with an event by The Henry Jackson Society on ‘Lawfare’ or legal warfare. The Lawfare Project defines it thus: ‘Lawfare denotes “the use of the law as a weapon of war” or, more specifically, the abuse of Western laws and judicial systems to achieve strategic military or political ends.’

    All comes back to tying down the definition.

  3. Saso Virag says:

    We’re arguing semantics, still. Like with many others “cyber” anything tends to raise my hackles.

    Let’s use the word that is more familiar to us all and that properly defines just what it is we are talking about: it’s good old information warfare. Discussions on this subject as it pertains to internet and beyond go back to at least early 1990′s and there’s plethora of military, legal, technology and other papers discussing the issue.

    Like Thomas Rid said, “cyber” war does not meet the definition of war in and of itself. But, if you look at it as a technology upgrade of one of its supporting acts it has been there since the early days.

  4. Ian K says:

    1) ‘Information War’ is probably a perfectly suitable way to define most of what is referred to as ‘cyberwar’ – beyond that which is better considered crime, espionage, or vandalism. The Russian campaign to knock out Georgian internet communications during the South Ossetia War is an especially good example of this. But what about Stuxnet-type attacks, that are intended to actually break things?

    2) ‘Cyber’ is an objectively cooler word than ‘information’.

    3) But I absolutely think most of the dialogue on the subject is overly enthusiastic if not outright alarmist claptrap.

  5. Calum says:

    I always notice that a distinction not made in these kinds of discussion is one of scale. A conventional war can be won by buying more guns, more ammo, and more soldiers. A cyber-war can only be won by beating your opponent’s appled mathematics. If he has done it correctly – which is in principle possible – then no amount of time or money can prevail.

  6. Jeffrey L. Johnson, Major, Infantry, Retired says:

    It think you got it right. It’s just another technique added to “Old War” practices!

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