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Cyber Warfare: Evolving the Modern Battlefield

The debate surrounding the changing nature of conflict in the modern era continues with the introduction of a new element, the cyber dimension. Cyber warfare represents a fundamental transformation in the very nature of the concept of conflict itself, not only changing the weapons of modern conflict, but radically shifting the nature of the wartime battlefield.

“The nature of war is changing, so you don’t have to have two tanks shooting at each other to call it war. You could very much argue that we are already in the midst of an information war.” – Dr. Jean Renouf. Cyber warfare allows new actors to participate despite their relative importance, it provides anonymity and therefore plausible deniability of wrongdoing. Additionally, cyber warfare allows states an alternative course of action, which is more convenient and cost-effective. Cyber warfare ultimately breaks down the traditional foundation of conflict by allowing states to avoid ethical violations and legal obligations which would be punished through the traditional rules of engagement in warfare.

The Evolution of Conflict

It is imperative to distinguish the definitions of the two colliding variables, conflict and cyber warfare; as well as dissect the evolution of conflict from its introduction to civilised society to the concept we know today.

Conflict theory suggested by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848), stipulates that society is in a state of constant conflict due to the struggle to obtain resources. The social order is maintained by whoever holds the most power, rather than consensus and those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible. Whilst many elements of conflict today can be described using conflict theory, it is becoming redundant in light of the introduction of modern warfare, including cyber.

It is apparent that throughout history, conflict has always been an evolving concept, constantly moulded by the introduction of new technology and the change in sentiment between states. Clausewitz (1832:87) posited that whilst conflict occurred due to social, religious and even cultural motivations, war is merely 'continuation of politics by other means "the justification behind why states fight for their interests. This has always been true of conventional warfare which was conducted using munitions and battlefield strategies between two or more, well-defined, forces in open confrontation' (Green, 1992). However, the dominant force behind conflict’s continual development has not been the economy or social change but what Raboin (2011: 603) describes as the “ever-changing limitations of wartime technology”.

Whilst it is plausible to contend that the majority of modern wars between nation states have been conducted using the means of conventional warfare, biological warfare has not occurred since 1945, excluding bioterrorism which dates to 1995 when Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas (Riedel, 2004). Chemical warfare has been utilised even fewer times and nuclear warfare has only occurred once with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Sodei, 1995). It is apparent that Clausewitzian principles depleted during the World Wars and further dilapidated with the initiation of nuclear proliferation. This development appears to have pushed conventional conflict waged by states to the side-lines. Were two conventional armies to fight, the loser would have reparation in its nuclear arsenal which is why no two nuclear powers have fought a conventional war directly, with the exception of minor skirmishes.

The arrival of the information age, combined with the willingness of nations to utilise emerging computer technologies, in order to avoid outright nuclear war, has transformed conflict between states from armed conflict (kinetic attacks) to cyber- attacks (non-kinetic attacks) (Applegate, 2013). This allows states to invade a nation’s sovereignty and impair

establishments but with less bloodshed and loss of human life. Today, merely aided by a single device connected to the Internet an entire nation’s infrastructure can be critically impaired (Shackelford, 2009). Thus, the nature of conflict transformed as the information revolution brought advancements in cyberspace providing states and non state actors a medium that results in destructive attacks.

This advancement, however, is not merely physical, for example, comparing cyberware to the ability of tanks in World War Two, but the changes in the theory of how conflict is now fought. Historically, every evolution of warfare has occurred within the realm of the physical world, however, cyber warfare has redefined the central wartime battlefield (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1993). The UK Ministry of Defence noted how contemporary conflicts were “transcending our conventional understanding of what equates to irregular and regular military activity” (MOD, 2015:1). It is evident that the conflict concept has shifted, and states have adapted their positions accordingly (Richards, 2014). Due to the lack of loss of human life during cyber-attacks, our previous notion of the relationships between violence in regard to conflict has been challenged (Stone, 2013). This evolution of higher dependence on the internet and other software has become essential for success in conflict. Thus, access and the protection of this information has become a vital source of power for states.

It could be argued that cyber warfare is unlikely to cause significant damage to the enemy when compared to conventional warfare, as sometimes its methods work and other times they completely fail, however, the introduction of cyber warfare plays an increasingly critical role in achieving an actor’s goal as it has enabled the potential for non-violent forms of conflict (Wooding, 2019).

What is Cyber Warfare?

As highlighted above, cyber warfare is one of the newest elements in contemporary warfare, however, this new advancement is continuously evolving and it can be challenging, at times, to stay abreast of all the new developments. In an age when individuals voluntarily transmit and receive copious amounts of personal data, exploiting electronic devices to alter or obtain information has become a crucial new tactic of conflict known as the 'fifth dimension battlefield, after air, sea, land and outer space' (Finklestein and Govern, 2015) and has, arguably, become vital in achieving states’ success today. This information revolution is based on rapid technological advances in computer software (Tabansky, 2013), as such, computing ability has doubled every 18 months for the last 30 years, at a fraction of the cost it did in the 1970’s and has meant that neither mass nor mobility decide outcomes. 

There is no clear set date of when cyber warfare began but a key milestone was in Kosovo in 1999. Whilst Vietnam was the world’s first TV war, Kosovo became its first cyber war (Geers, 2008). NATO Kosovo operation was a major challenge in the history of the Atlantic alliance. For the first time, a defensive alliance launched a military campaign to avoid a humanitarian tragedy outside its own borders. For the first time, an alliance of sovereign nations fought not to conquer or preserve territory but to protect the values on which the alliance was founded. And despite many challenges, including the use of cyber warfare, NATO prevailed. Numerous pro-Serbian hackers attacked NATO’s internet infrastructure with the goal to disrupt military operations (SRNA, 1999). Whilst some states declared the cyber-attacks had no impact on their overall war effort, the U.K. admitted to having lost at least some database information (Geers, 2005), these attacks where the first sign of things to come and the potential power cyberware would have.

There are several key uses of cyberware; military, civil and income generation which utilise methods such as reconnaissance and espionage; sabotage; propaganda; economic disruption and surveillance (Schreier, 2015). For example, in the U.S., Cyber Storm Exercise, was a Department of Homeland Security exercise testing the nations defences against digital espionage and highlighting the gaps in America’s Cyber defences (Department of Homeland Security, 2012). Cyber Shockwave, similarly, looked at civil attacks (Drogin, 2010; Sarmad, 2010) which can also include electrical grids, financial networks and telecommunication systems (Lin, 2016). Thirdly, convenient income generation, as seen when North Korea generated $42 billion to fund a weapons programme, avoiding sanctions by the U.S. and U.N. (Nichols, 2019).

In 2007, eight years after Kosovo, McAfee LLC stipulated that over 120 countries had developed cyber means to use the internet to target other states through financial markets, computer systems, and national infrastructure (Finklestein and Govern, 2015). This new warfare realm, referred to as “cyberspace” (Lopez, 2006), has become the key to the future for contemporary conflict.

Certain theories of cyber warfare are yet to be developed; however, all are integral to understanding the challenges and necessary responses that come from cyberspace. Incorporating Clausewitz’s statement “war is a continuation of politics by other means' (Clausewitz, 1832: 87), it follows that cyber practitioners within the cyber realm are those who seek to use cyber to achieve political ends and with the convenience that comes with the virtual world, states can enact their political goals by participating in cyber warfare to combat their enemies (Schreier, 2015). 

The cyber domain is unique in that it is all new,

manmade and subject to even more rapid

technological evolution than other domains. More importantly, the non-existent boundaries in cyberspace create an environment where states can simultaneously be allies and adversaries. States are allied when faced by a cyberthreat, however, can also be adversaries when one states decided to advance its cyber-security presence at the expense of another state (Raboin, 2011). The medium and complexity of cyberspace means that it can be put to a wide range of uses thus increasing the potential for conflict. As such,cyberspace has become gradually well-defined in a military context by a variety of state governments. However, cyber-attacks are not just restricted to local governments but can also rapidly spread worldwide without the need of human capital, as “cyber warfare has no borders and is able to attack multiple destinations simultaneously” (Schreier, 2015: 7). The U.S. Department of Defence termed cyberspace a “global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent network of information technology infrastructures, including the internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers” (Department of Defence, 2001). Whilst it is clear that cyberspace has created an interconnected world full of possibility it brings with it malicious intent thus creating “cyber insecurities” especially among nation states such as the U.S. and Russia who rely on the cyber domain for the functioning of their institutions. This new cyber power depends on the control and communication of computer-based information as well as human skill in manipulating computers, intranets, and space-based communications. Prevalent apprehension surrounds the possibility of a ‘cyber Pearl Harbour’ or a ‘cyber 9/11’ causing states to grow their reliance on cyberspace, thus proving how crucial the virtual world is for advancing national interest.

To conclude, Cyber practitioners have at their disposal a wide variety of effective cyberware and its resonating power means that future successes in the virtual world can turn into successes in the real world. Cyber warfare represents a fundamental transformation in the very nature of the concept of conflict itself and all conflicts in the future will have a cyber dimension. Efforts must be made to incorporate cyber warfare in international law to attempt to mitigate effects caused, prevent attacks in the future and hold attackers accountable.



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Open Government Licence, Ministry of Defence Images, Crown Copyright (1999) WARRIOR ARMOURED PERSONNEL CARRIERS ARE CHEERED ON AS THEY PASS REFUGEES. SOUTHERNKOSOVOBORDER Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Top Image - NATO (2011), North Atlantic Cyber Defence Committee. Copy write protected under the NATO Fair Usage Policy.

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