Academic journal article Parameters

Cyberweapons: Leveling the International Playing Field

Academic journal article Parameters

Cyberweapons: Leveling the International Playing Field

Article excerpt

One of the largest security concerns facing the United States today is how to mitigate its vulnerability to cyberweapons. Over the past twenty years, cyberthreats have evolved from solitary hackers motivated by monetary gain and prestige to organized crime and state actors. The sophistication and capabilities of these threats grows in direct proportion to the level of connectivity in society. Despite this steady development of cyberthreats, relatively little attention is given to discerning how these threats will impact warfighting and the international system. Most of the current literature on cyberwarfare considers it, at best, a force multiplier. Many scholars disregard its effects as a standalone attack vector, citing various reasons from US responses to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to the inability of strategic bombing in World War II to subdue the civilian populations in England and Germany, absent combined military operations. These perspectives are correct in arguing that offensive cyberoperations without traditional, conventional power will be largely futile. This analytical approach, however, presumes that cyberweapons will be used in an offensive, first-strike manner. The long-range strike capabilities of cyberwar have the potential to be extremely effective when employed as an anticoercion weapon. In essence, a strong cyber capability is a deterrent force that will largely mitigate outside interference in domestic and regional affairs.

Because there are no confirmed cases of a large-scale, state-sanctioned cyberattack, analysts are currently forced to explore different weapon systems and theories to help both the fighter and the politician understand how cyberweapons can be utilized and what vulnerabilities this new class of weapon creates. Given the unique characteristics of cyberspace and cyberweapons, no existing technology or theory will provide an adequate understanding. Nevertheless, by borrowing tenets from both strategic airpower theory and early debates on nuclear weapons doctrine and deterrence, the approximate capabilities of cyberweapons become far less opaque.

The concept of strategic airpower has developed over the past century into one of the main tenets of modern war. (1) Strategists understand its limitations in winning a war of existential proportions but also found it exceedingly useful in short duration conflicts between two unequal parties. The air superiority required for a strategic air campaign costs trillions of dollars and requires an extensive network of overseas bases for airfields and ports that can accommodate carrier battle groups. This level of investment is beyond the capacity of most states. As a result, cyberweapons have the potential to become an equalizing force because they require a fraction of the investment but are able to execute most of the same missions.

Additionally, early nuclear theory wrestled with many of the same problems that we now face in attempting to understand cyberweapons. While the United States and Soviet Union eventually came to the same conclusion about the true utility of nuclear weapons in war, it took two decades to do so. While cyberweapons may turn out to be awe inspiring enough to create a new form of mutually assured destruction (MAD) (2), it is far more likely that early thinking regarding demonstration shots and defense on the cheap dovetailing into massive retaliation will be more insightful.

Just as the industrial revolution brought about a fundamental change in warfare, the information age is ushering in a new, low-cost option for strategic defense. Cyberwarfare capabilities can now accomplish most of the strategic tasks that once required air supremacy. According to US analysts, everything from health care to the power grid is a viable cyber target. (3) A cursory look at the targets of recent US air campaigns illustrates how much civilian infrastructure is targeted in a strategic bombing campaign. In today's interconnected world, both civilian infrastructure and military installations are increasingly vulnerable to cyber disruption. …

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