In these months I’m turning a 12,000-word article, “Cyber War Will Not Take Place”, published earlier this year in the Journal of Strategic Studies, into a 70,000-word book. That turns out to be rather interesting, even exciting. Naturally, that book needs to say something about war in the “fifth domain.” I found it exceptionally hard to maintain a detached style when I wrote the following paragraphs this afternoon, and not drift into the polemical. I’d be interested in the take of KoW’s esteemed readership, including and particularly those not primarily interested in cyber security. Here’s the argument:
Talk of war in the fifth domain is counterproductive.
“Warfare has entered the fifth domain: cyberspace,” The Economist intoned in July 2010. Indeed referring to cyber conflict as warfare in the fifth domain has become a standard expression in the debate. This author was taken aback in a closed-door meeting in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London in early 2012 when a senior lawyer for the International Committee of the Red Cross referred to cyberwar and wondered whether the ICRC needed to work toward adapting the Law of Armed Conflict to that new fifth domain.
One, the expression of war in the fifth domain has its origin as an Air Force lobbying gimmick. The air force had already been in charge of air and space, so cyberspace came naturally. In December 2005 the U.S. Air Force expanded its mission accordingly. That alone is not a strong argument against the term’s utility, but it should be clear where the expression comes from, and what the original intention was: claim a larger pie of the budget. At closer examination, the idea is backfiring.
Second: ultimately code-triggered violence will express itself in the other domains. Violence in cyberspace is always indirect. By definition, violence that actually harms a human being cannot express itself in a “fifth domain.” (In the book, this will have been discussed at length.)
Third, if warfare in the “fifth domain,” as consequently would be necessary, referred only to damaging, stealing, or deleting information stored in computer networks, not to affecting something that is not part of that domain in the first place, then the very notion of war would be diluted into a metaphor, as in the “war” on obesity.
Fourth, cyberspace is not a separate domain of war. Instead the use of computer networks permeates all other domains of military conflict, land, sea, air, and space. An institutional division of labour is therefore far more difficult to implement, especially in a military context: the air force doesn’t have tanks, the army has no frigates, but everybody has computer-run command-and-control networks. If cyberspace were a separate domain of actual war, then Google would be a military superpower, or, put alternatively, the U.S. Air Force would have to fly inside the Googleplex — neither makes sense.
Finally, cyberspace is not even space. Cyberspace is a now-common metaphor to describe the widening reaches of the Internet. “Firewall” and “surfing” the web are other well-established and widely accepted spacial metaphors. Saying the air force “flies” in cyberspace is like the army training troops to “scale” firewalls or the navy developing new “torpedoes” to hit some of those surfing the web.
In fact the very idea of “flying, fighting, and winning [...] in cyberspace”, enshrined in the U.S. Air Force’s mission statement, is so ill fitting that some serious observers can only find it plainly ridiculous — especially an organisation that wields some of the world’s most terrifying and precise weapons should know better.
The debate on national security and defence would be well served if debating war would be cut back to the time-tested four domains. This would make it easier to recognize the actual potential of cyber attacks …