The New Battlefield: The World of Cyberspace

The emergence of cyber warfare has changed the way countries think about security and defense in order to be safe from hackers. 

World War I saw the emergence of tanks and machine guns. World War II saw the prominent use of flamethrowers and the introduction of long range-guided ballistic missiles. The Cold War was a standoff centered on nuclear bombs. The Persian Gulf War was won through extensive bombing via stealth fighter-bombers and Tomahawk cruise missiles. So what is the world’s newest way to wage war?

The internet.

As the world becomes more reliant on technological capabilities, those tasked with waging war dedicate an increasing amount of resources toward the defense of cyber-attacks and, too, the ability to conduct their own.

For instance, the U.S. Tenth Fleet, a Navy cyber unit, exists with a mission statement, “to conduct operations in and through cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, and space to ensure [the] Navy and Joint/Coalition freedom of action and decision superiority while denying the same to our adversaries,” and to dominate cyberspace, which they define as the, “5th Operational Domain,” of warfare. Cyber security and cyber warfare are transitioning into being treated similarly to traditional defense and military measures, with a militant emphasis on logistics in cyberspace paralleling militant resource and weapons acquisitions and manufacture. However, there are limitations to the extent of this comparison, and those limitations arise due to an aspect of cyber warfare that is largely not shared with physical, more traditional forms of warfare: accessibility.

Cyber warfare presents the world with a remarkably accessible way to fight. In a conventional war, proximity, weaponry and training are essential for engagement and involvement in the battle. Due to this, states that are in locations physically removed from wars—such as the United States—are not often directly involved in waging war. States that have untrained militaries or outdated, inefficient equipment and weaponry do not often involve themselves in wars in which they have no fighting chance. Conventional war also assumes that the actors in war are either states or, more recently, terrorist groups. However, the accessibility introduced by new developments in cyber warfare is transforming the nature of the battlefield.

As fronts of war in cyberspace do not require a physical presence where the ‘enemy’ is located, states are not deterred by the traditional proximity hurdle, and thus, can become more directly involved in war. For instance, the hacktivist group “Anonymous” is able to wage war on the Islamic State despite a lack of formal physical presence in the Middle East. The capability of a civilian body, rather than a state, achieving direct influence on warfare in cyberspace is without clear parallel in traditional warfare. Furthermore, cyber warfare decreases the importance of traditional training and resources.

The hardware needed for direct involvement in cyber warfare stands as a fairly insignificant barrier in developed nations, as most civilians in developed nations have the computer and internet access necessary. Likewise, the training needed to execute some degree of cyber warfare is minimal, or at the very least, training is easy to access on the Internet. For instance, the aforementioned civilian group Anonymous has published a “NoobGuide” for hacking the Islamic State, with a goal of increasing the civilian involvement in their war on the Islamic State. However, just as cyber warfare opens the door for civilians to be involved, it also allows for civilians to be vulnerable to new types of attacks.

In nations such as the U.S., where wars are not often physically fought, the growing presence of cyber warfare brings the effects of war much closer to civilians than traditional war does. The life of a civilian in the U.S. is typically not in danger, even with wars being fought overseas. However, as a result of modern, cyber warfare, that same civilian’s cyber security and safety certainly are at risk.  

This is the result of a noticeable power distribution shift that war in cyberspace brings about. In preparing for traditional warfare, immense resources are dedicated to the acquisition and development of physical weapons and defense mechanisms—the U.S. Department of Defense is requesting a budget of over $500 billion dollars for the 2016 fiscal year alone. This burden can be shouldered by large, rich nations such as the United States, but cannot be absorbed so easily by smaller and less wealthy groups such as the Islamic State. However, the same disproportionately large resource allocations are not as essential within the sphere of cyberspace, which decreases the advantageous results of a massive budget and resource pool.  

Furthermore, cyber warfare brings about a greater national security risk for powerful nations such as the United States. An article from The New Yorker goes as far as to compare the rash implementation and potentially devastating global response to cyber warfare, particularly Stuxnet, to the Cold War nuclear arms race. However, this comparison falls short for one key, aforementioned reason accessibility. Civilians or small militant groups cannot often afford to develop or procure nuclear weapons, thus the risk for large and developed nations that can afford those technologies is relatively low, compared to a high risk for those who cannot afford the technologies. However, those same civilians and small groups can utilize much of the same technology that larger nations can with regards to conducting cyber warfare, thus reducing the risk for themselves and maximizing the risk for the large nations with everything to lose.

In addition, the nature surrounding the feasibility of cyber-attacks and counter-measures favors smaller groups with less on the line. In short, it is generally less challenging to find a weakness in cyber-security measures than to defend against all possible intrusions. It is for this reason that the group responsible for analyzing the effectiveness of military equipment, known as the DOT&E (Director, Operational Test and Evaluation), found in early February a recurring issue with U.S. Army communications equipment: vulnerability to cyber-attack. The group stated that even the newest and most improved version of the Army’s battlefield gear, “continues to demonstrate cybersecurity vulnerabilities.” It is for this reason that cyber-attacks, indiscriminately on critical infrastructure, government and civilian targets alike, serve as the most threatening avenue of conflict development, in a world growing more dependent on technology on a daily basis.

By: Parker Brown ’19 

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