Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Cyberspace and the "First Battle" in 21st-Century War

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Cyberspace and the "First Battle" in 21st-Century War

Article excerpt


Wars often start well before main forces engage. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, combat often began when light cavalry units crossed the border. For most of the 20th century, the "first battle" typically involved dawn surprise attacks, usually delivered by air forces. (1) While a few of these attacks were so shattering that they essentially decided the outcome of the struggle or at least dramatically shaped its course--the Israeli air force's attack at the opening of the June 1967 Six-Day War comes to mind--in most cases the defender had sufficient strategic space--geographic and/or temporal--to recover and eventually redress the strategic balance to emerge victorious. The opening moments of World War II for Russia and the United States provide two examples.

The first battle in the 21st century, however, may well be in cyberspace. (2) Coordinated cyber attacks designed to shape the larger battlespace and influence a wide range of forces and levers of power may become the key feature of the next war. Early forms of this may have already been seen in Estonia and Georgia. Control of cyberspace may thus be as decisive in the network-dependent early 21st century as control of the air was for most of the 20th century.

In the future, cyber attacks may be combined with other means to inflict paralyzing damage to a nation's critical infrastructure as well as psychological operations designed to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt, a concept we refer to as infrastructure and information operations. The cyber sphere itself is, of course, a critical warfighting domain that hosts countless information infrastructures, but the rise of networkbased control systems in areas as diverse as the power grid and logistics has widened the threat posed by network attacks on opposing infrastructures.

Given the increasing dependence of the U.S. military and society on critical infrastructures, this cyber-based first battle is one that we cannot afford to lose. And yet we might.

First Battles in American History

Historically, time and space to recover have often proven essential in overcoming losses in an opening battle. The United States frequently has fared poorly in the opening battles of past conventional wars--the other side, usually authoritarian or totalitarian, spends more time preparing the initial blow. As Charles Heller and Bill Stofft point out in their classic study of America's first battles, there's a pattern here. (3) In many cases, especially those in which the United States was engaged with a technologically advanced peer competitor, our first engagements have been disastrous. Only because America had sufficient (sometimes barely sufficient) strategic space--geographic and/or temporal depth--were we able to recover from our first defeats.

World War II provides examples across all three of that war's operational domains and with several combatants in different theaters. At sea, our initial efforts at submarine and carrier warfare, which became indispensable components of our victory in the Pacific, were hesitant and marked by faulty equipment, ineffective doctrine, and a steep learning curve for personnel. (4) In the air, we discovered that one of the keystones of our prewar airpower doctrine--the efficacy of unescorted precision strategic bombing--was sadly in error, and the lack of fighter escorts for our bombers in 1943 cost us hundreds of bombers and thousands of crewmen. It was not until 1944 that German exhaustion and the arrival of the P-51 gave us air superiority in Europe, without which the victories of 1944-1945 would have been simply impossible. On land, our initial encounters with the Wehrmacht went poorly, as shown by the disaster at Kasserine Pass and the difficulties encountered throughout the North African and Italian campaigns. Not until the advance across France in the summer of 1944 did our skill at conducting combined arms maneuver warfare begin to match that of our German adversary. …

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