Cyber War

The Next Generation of Warfare

The Pentagon is increasing its cyber warfare division fivefold. The wars of the future?

Fascinating report from NPR's Tom Gjelton this morning on cyber warfare. The Pentagon is quintupling its cyber warfare workforce from the current 900 to something around 4,500. But more than that, Gjelton reports that while the public posture of the DoD has always been that our cyber warfare units are defensive in nature, we're out there playing some offense, too:

"The thrust of the strategy is defensive," declared William Lynn, the deputy secretary of defense at the time. Neither he nor other Pentagon officials had one word to say about possible offensive cyberattacks. The Pentagon would not favor the use of cyberspace "for hostile purposes," according to the strategy. "Establishing robust cyberdefenses no more militarizes cyberspace," Lynn said, "than having a navy militarizes the ocean."

Those assurances are deceptive. Behind the scenes, U.S. commanders are committing vast resources and large numbers of military personnel to planning offensive cyberattacks and, in at least some cases, actually carrying them out. But the secrecy surrounding offensive cyberwar planning means there has been almost no public discussion or debate over the legal, ethical and practical issues raised by waging war in cyberspace.

Offensive cyberattacks carried out by the United States could set precedents other countries would follow. The rules of engagement for cyberwar are not yet clearly defined. And the lack of regulation concerning the development of cyberweapons could lead to a proliferation of lethal attack tools — and even to the possibility that such weapons could fall into the hands of unfriendly states, criminal organizations and even terrorist groups.

The story goes on to note that the US had a role in developing the Stuxnet virus.

It's a jungle out there. There are no rules of engagement. And it's kind of hard to imagine that there ever will be because there is no great moral question at stake here. That is to say, humankind developed rules of warfare, and later rules about nuclear warfare, because the stakes involved human lives--in the latter case, the lives of wholly innocent millions.

But cyber warfare isn't going to kill anybody. In terms of trying to establish the rules of the game, that's a downside, even though it's obviously a plus in general terms as it could reduce the incidence of physical conflict in the world. There will still be normal, "kinetic" wars, because land is land, and sometimes people just fight over it, and because men are men, and some men just need to kill thousands or millions of other men, and that will never change. But it's interesting to think that "warfare" could come to mean chiefly one major power destroying another's economy online.