Cyber Power in Strategic Affairs: Neither Unthinkable nor Blessed

This is a crosspost with the just launched blog of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (of which I am a fellow) called Geopoliticus. I think that you should add it to your reading list. For any who don’t know, FPRI is a Philadelphia-based think tank notable, amongst other things, as the publisher of the estimable journal Orbis as well as a regular series e-Notes (short papers by leading analysts on major issues of the day). Their website appears to have been recently redesigned and is rich with defence and foreign policy goodness.

Readers may be interested in a new article of mine just published in the Journal of Strategic Studies ‘Cyber Power in Strategic Affairs: Neither unthinkable nor Blessed‘ which the publishers have made free to access for non-subscribers.

The War in the Air

It’s my attempt to broaden the discussion of ‘cyber’ beyond computer networks and to look at the effect of ‘connectivity’ (my preferred term) on strategic affairs more broadly. My view, in a nutshell, is that its effect on war’s character is potentially, although not yet shown in practice, considerably large; but its effect on war’s nature is small. The distribution of power among states in the international system is not reversed by cyber power, contrary to the claims of ‘cyber war’ alarmists. It makes strong states stronger and weak states weaker, not strong states weaker and weak states stronger–as is too often thought. Its effect upon strategic affairs is complex, however. One thing which I believe strategists today, still predominantly concerned with the conflicts and confrontations of states and organised military power, have not fully grasped is how non-traditional strategic actors, better adapted to the network flows of the information age, are beginning to deploy new forms of organisation and coercion that challenge the status quo.

Perhaps a few words about the title are useful. The term ‘strategic affairs’ I have, of course, taken from my esteemed colleague (and boss) Lawrence Freedman’s 2006 Transformation of Strategic Affairs Adelphi Paper which following on from his 1998 Revolution in Strategic Affairs made a strong impression on me. Specifically, what stuck with me was his point that although technology was altering the way armies go about their business what was really significant was the way these technological advances interacted with politics. It strikes me that if we attempt to understand information age security–or ‘cyber security’, if you prefer—mainly as a technical issue of computer networks, hardware and software, then we are doing a disservice to the topic. We don’t think that an understanding of the characteristics of weapon systems adds up to an understanding of war because we know war’s logic is not its own–that it is about politics, about society, and that means you need also understand the human motivations behind the uses of the technology for better or worse. As it happens, yesterday I spoke to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Science and Technology Committee which was meeting at Westminster on ‘Beyond Cyber War’ and this was one of the points I hoped to drive home. Not sure if they got it. I guess we’ll see when there next funding call goes out if it’s all aimed at computer science and no social science, at all, as the last time. But I digress.

The line ‘neither unthinkable nor blessed’ is drawn from Michael S. Sherry’s outstanding book The Rise of American Air Power who used it to characterise the conclusion H.G. Wells came to in his still very readable 1907 science-fiction novel The War in the Air about the impact of air power on strategic affairs of his day. Very long quotes are frowned upon in academic articles. But in blog posts they’re A-Okay. Here’s a bit which struck me as being, with a few word changes from ‘aerial warfare’ to ‘cyber warfare’, very apt now.

The third peculiarity of aerial warfare was that it was at once enormously destructive and entirely indecisive. It had this unique feature, that both sides lay open to punitive attack. In all previous forms of war, both by land and sea, the losing side was speedily unable to raid its antagonist’s territory and the communications. One fought on a “front,” and behind that front the winner’s supplies and resources, his towns and factories and capital, the peace of his country, were secure. If the war was a naval one, you destroyed your enemy’s battle fleet and then blockaded his ports, secured his coaling stations, and hunted down any stray cruisers that threatened your ports of commerce. But to blockade and watch a coastline is one thing, to blockade and watch the whole surface of a country is another, and cruisers and privateers are things that take long to make, that cannot be packed up and hidden and carried unostentatiously from point to point. In aerial war the stronger side, even supposing it destroyed the main battle fleet of the weaker, had then either to patrol and watch or destroy every possible point at which he might produce another and perhaps a novel and more deadly form of flyer. It meant darkening his air with airships. It meant building them by the thousand and making aeronauts by the hundred thousand. A small uninitiated airship could be hidden in a railway shed, in a village street, in a wood; a flying machine is even less conspicuous.

And in the air are no streets, no channels, no point where one can say of an antagonist, “If he wants to reach my capital he must come by here.” In the air all directions lead everywhere.

Consequently it was impossible to end a war by any of the established methods. A, having outnumbered and overwhelmed B, hovers, a thousand airships strong, over his capital, threatening to bombard it unless B submits. B replies by wireless telegraphy that he is now in the act of bombarding the chief manufacturing city of A by means of three raider airships. A denounces B’s raiders as pirates and so forth, bombards B’s capital, and sets off to hunt down B’s airships, while B, in a state of passionate emotion and heroic unconquerableness, sets to work amidst his ruins, making fresh airships and explosives for the benefit of A. The war became perforce a universal guerilla war, a war inextricably involving civilians and homes and all the apparatus of social life.

A couple of days ago Paul Mitchell, Professor at Canadian Forces College, wrote a short piece for the Laurier Centre ‘The Future is Upon Us‘ which is all about failed predictions of future war. It’s worthwhile. In it he makes excellent point that ‘Very often, our predictions say more about our present: as Yogi Berra says, the future ain’t what it used to be.’ Well, I fear to contradict the great sage that is Yogi Berra, but, you know, I think sometimes it’s fairer to say that the future has already been and may be again in slightly different form.



3 thoughts on “Cyber Power in Strategic Affairs: Neither Unthinkable nor Blessed

  1. Madhu says:

    I’ve listened to a bunch of the FPRI podcasts.

    Good topics, good range of speakers. A blog sounds like a great idea for that site.

  2. Pingback: Strategy. You keep using that word … | Artificially Intelligent

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