Academic journal article Military Review

Attack or Defend? Leveraging Information and Balancing Risk in Cyberspace

Academic journal article Military Review

Attack or Defend? Leveraging Information and Balancing Risk in Cyberspace

Article excerpt

When this article was originally written, DOD policy and military regulations significantly restricted the use of the Internet for strategic communication purposes in favor of security. On 25 February 2010, DOD published a policy embracing a balanced approach in this regard, thus supporting the original thesis of this article. The author has updated the article accordingly to provide a deeper explanation of the policy decision and as a call to embrace its tenets.

UNITED STATES MILITARY history is replete with examples of preparing for the next war by studying the last (or current) one. Consequently, we often engage in warfare with doctrine and processes that lag behind current reality. The result can be a prolonged war effort at great cost to national treasure, both fiscal and human. The harried development and implementation of counterinsurgency doctrine, resulting in the so-called "surge" in the midst of the campaign in Iraq, is but one example. (1)

The Army's introspective consideration of future warfare in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, is an exception. Using the 1973 Arab-Israeli War as a harbinger of warfare where precision weaponry and technological advances showed the importance of maneuver, the Army shifted from a doctrine of "Active Defense" to "Airland Battle." However, this was not universally accepted. In a 2006 Landpower essay, Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege remininisced:

   In what developed into a healthy exchange, [young officers] saw
   defensive tactics as a "fall-back by ranks" approach that confused
   delay and defense, and would lead commanders to avoid decisive
   engagement ... They saw it as reactive, surrendering the initiative
   and resulting in a risky method of defense. (2)

The official history of the 1991 Gulf War describes the shift to Airland Battle doctrine as a prescient decision that was the basis of that dramatic victory for the U.S. military. (3)

So what will the next war look like? No one has a flawless crystal ball to predict the future, but even a cursory consideration of potential future adversaries reveals the importance placed on information as a strategic asymmetric means to conduct warfare. The Chinese military

has reportedly hacked into Pentagon military networks. (4) The Russian government allegedly conducted a major cyber attack on Estonian infrastructure. (5) Yet even while attacks on information systems are proving to be a threat, reliance on the Internet to fight the "war of ideas" is increasing. Consider the so-called "2nd Lebanon War" between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Hezbollah used information to affect perceptions as a means to achieve strategic victory, even going so far as to place billboards on the rubble of buildings in southern Lebanon that said "Made in the USA" (in English). (6)


The U.S. military certainly recognizes this threat, as the move to establish a U.S. Cyber Command demonstrates. However, until recently, doctrine was lagging. Past policies favored "active defense" over "maneuver" in cyberspace. And while a recent policy change points to a potentially significant shift in that equation, the question arises whether the military will embrace the organizational change necessary to balance the need to protect networks while going on the ideological offensive its adversaries have embraced.

In the end, leaders must weigh the risks involved to achieve a balance to compete in the information battlespace. Will they develop an "Airland Battle" equivalent for cyberspace, or will they wait until the next war to strike the balance at potentially great cost to our Nation?

Defining the Problem

Keeping up with the definition of cyberspace can be a full-time job. Since 2004, the U.S. government has presented four different "official" definitions. The Department of Defense (DOD) currently defines cyberspace as--

   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. … 
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