A few weeks ago I was invited to a conference in Holland organised by the Netherlands Intelligence Association to give a talk on ‘cyber war’. This was rather good of the organisers, I thought, since if you’d read my book (co-written with Tim Stevens) Cyberspace and the State you’d know that I’m basically skeptical of the concept both analytically and practically. The short essay below is based on the talk that I gave. It’s actually been published but translated into Dutch. I haven’t got a link at the moment. But it might as well see the light of day in the original. Have a read.
Though, actually, the more immediate prompt for this post are the reports of Iranian aircraft having attacked and failed to shoot down an American Predator drone somewhere over the Persian Gulf. Hey, good shooting Iranian Air Force! (The drone, top speed under 500kph, was unscathed). Now it seems the conspiracists are on fire with speculation about whether the attack was hushed up prior to the election not to scupper Obama’s reelection campaign. Maybe. I doubt it. (The drone, uh, president, doesn’t seem to have needed any help anyway and his campaign emerged unscathed).
More precisely, I suspect that what this is an example of a trend towards ‘Non-Obvious Warfare‘ that Martin Libicki was writing about in the latest Strategic Studies Quarterly. I write that cautiously because for Libicki, it seems to me, the key thing about ‘non-obvious warfare’ is that the identity of an attacker is ambiguous, which isn’t the case here; whereas for me, what seems more pertinent about non-obvious warfare is that the belligerents have quite a good idea about who is doing what to whom and why. The thing is that both sides perceive a keen interest in not letting the war escape too much into the public sphere where the passions of the people might get engaged and thereby trigger an escalation of the war that neither wants. In layman’s terms:
Anyway, Libicki’s theory was on my mind when I was writing up my talk. I think it’s a big idea. Not to say that I have worked through all the implications yet (for that matter I don’t think Libicki has either) but it’s thought provoking and I think people should be discussing it. My take on an aspect of it is below.
Like the shock paddles of a defibrillator on the chest of a heart attack victim the prefix “cyber” has an electrifying effect on policymakers and strategists wrestling with the complexities of information age security. Thus while in practically every other aspect of public expenditure the talk is all of “austerity” there has been a bonanza of resources dedicated to countering the “threat from the internet”.
The defence and foreign policy community is worried too much about the effect of cyber on the existing distribution of power among states in the international system—in other words about “cyber war”. It is not worried enough about the ways in which digital connectivity is empowering various anti-status quo movements in ways that raise questions about the function and viability of the state that have not been much at issue, in the West at least, for several hundred years.
The effect of connectivity on war’s essence as a reciprocal act of force to compel one’s enemy to do one’s will is small, contrary to the claims of “cyber war” alarmists. Mostly it exacerbates a problem of strategy that has been growing for a hundred years or more already: how to make war’s benefits exceed its costs?
Ninety years ago, in the shadow of the ghastly but indecisive two-dimensional slaughters of the Great War, it was hoped that air power might be the answer. Able to leap over the surface fortifications of major states and render their innards vulnerable to destruction, the bomber was going to bring about rapid and decisive wars. One cannot help but hear echoed in today’s “cyber doom” scenarios Stanley Baldwin’s infamous 1932 British House of Commons speech in which he warned, “The bomber will always get through…” That none of this proved true of airpower then does not mean that it might not be true of cyber power now. Some caution, however, about claims of discontinuous change in war might be in order.
The truth is that warfare is constantly being reinvented and that always a new stasis re-emerges. Cyber offers states new ways of causing harm to each other but, by and large, they will fear to use it openly because of the inevitably slippery slope to all arms warfare that it entails. The “new normal” may well be “sub rosa” wars in which both belligerents deliberately keep the scale of their attacks—of all sorts, including digital—below some threshold beyond which an escalatory response would be required.
This means keeping the existence of the “war” from the notice of publics whose passions might thereby be engaged. The dangers of this are probably self-evident: it certainly imperils the normal pattern of civil-military relations—secret wars and democracy are not a very palatable mix; it is likely inherently unstable since neither side perfectly understands the other’s “red lines” and thus there is an ever present danger of miscalculation; and, ultimately, since such “wars” intentionally avoid an open “culminating point of victory” they are likely to run on and on.
On the other hand, in our deeply connected public sphere social movements and “insurgent politics” have a greater ability to set agendas and shape discourse than ever before. Connectivity enhances the ability of movements to operate and organize in both the physical and virtual dimensions in ways that are hard to counter and vexatious to government. Wikileaks is a case in point as is the “Occupy” movement, which describes itself as a “leaderless resistance movement” utilizing the “Arab Spring tactic”.
These developments are tightly linked with the burgeoning of digital networks. In the early 1990s, the Chiapas revolt in Mexico skilfully exploited the then emerging cyberspace, using email to internationalize its cause and find allies abroad. Similarly, “smart mob” tactics using digital connectivity to deploy “swarming tactics” go back to the 1999 “Battle for Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organisation. Nowadays, movements such as the “alter-globalisation” group “We are Everywhere” describes itself as a “global rebellion… in constant flux which swaps ideas and tactics across oceans, shares strategies between cultures and continents, gathers in swarms and dissolves, only to swarm again elsewhere.”
It is easy to scoff at such groups. It is possible that today’s “revolutionary” zeitgeist (in the West, at any rate) may serve no further purpose than the emotional sustainment of a small counterculture that possesses no potential of mass mobilization. And yet it no longer invites ridicule to suggest that the ongoing world economic crisis, which is rather acutely problematic in Euro-land, has much potential to lead major social disorder. The “global justice” movement is powered by a widespread and deepening perception that the current order is significantly unjust. Complacency is not in order.
Already today we see instances of new forms of simple disruption and attack of the status quo that are worthy of concern. The Internet hacking collective known as “Anonymous”, for example, while no doubt capricious and idiosyncratic, has demonstrated the power to inflict pain and destroy wealth—the essential “bargaining power” of strategy. Whether more disciplined revolutionaries have or will find ways of employing the dumb mass of cheap “clicktivists” as ad hoc “shock troops” or not is an increasingly important “known unknown”.
To be sure, connectivity can be a powerful force for good. Few today really are happy with the status quo and a little subversion is not a priori a bad thing; on the contrary, it is the hallmark of a healthy, dynamic and open society. But it has a significant dark side also. For one thing the rapidity and ease of communications means that actions initiated in one place can have practically instantaneous effects in another, regardless of their geographical separation. The current “Muslim Rage” over representations of Mohammed in film and print in the West epitomize this effect. Also the limits beyond which there are no potential attacks are disappearing as national frontiers become more permeable.
In the West we appear to be seeing the long predicted “retribalization” of society as a result of connectivity. The results of this, though, are not confined to “cyberspace”. They can be very real and very physical. Anders Breivik’s shooting and killing sixty-nine young activists of the Norwegian Labour party last summer blended both cyberspace and “real space” elements inextricably. That attack points a finger at an unsettled future in which big wars are rare, or kept invisible, while one-man “do-it-yourself” revolutionaries acting out their rage in spasmodic acts of rage are common. This sort of “propaganda by deed” is not the first of its kind; rather, it too is but another stage in the evolution of political violence that is highly adapted to the current communications paradigm. The degree of individual superempowerment it involved is alarming. Unfortunately, it will not be the last.
If it seems in this article that I have wandered far from “cyber war” it is not for want of reason. The real problems of “cyber security” are not simply—or even mainly—a technical issue of computer networks, hardware and software any more than war is just a matter of weapon systems; rather, both are about politics, about society, and about understanding the human motivations behind the uses of the technology for better or worse. If we can understand this and be good engineers then we may get through the present and future turmoil. If we don’t understand this, even if we’ve got great engineers, then we really are screwed.