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On Point

On Cyber War


by Austin Bay
November 25, 2009

At the height of its imperial power, "all roads led to Rome." The Latin capital, as the seat of government, center of commerce and central transportation hub, connected the entire empire. Now the Internet is, in a figurative sense, a hyper-Rome, a global "information superhighway" with digital routes connecting anywhere to everywhere -- as long as you can get a signal with sufficient bandwidth.

The city of Rome had stout walls. The various walls protecting devices connected to the Internet (e.g., firewalls, anti-virus software) aren't perfect and, given increasing economic and communications reliance on the Internet, are uncomfortably vulnerable to sophisticated attacks.

Cyber attackers -- whether they are spies, teenage geek vandals or criminal thieves and blackmailers -- seek military, diplomatic, economic and personal data, or seek to disrupt the opponents' ability to transfer data effectively and securely.

In May 2007, Estonia accused Russia of launching a cyber attack on its computer systems. Georgia experienced heavy cyber attacks in August 2008 during its brief "shooting war" with Moscow. China and the U.S. regularly trade accusations of what amounts to "cyber skirmishing" involving hackers (who may or may not be working for intelligence agencies) and military cyber warfare units (which can digitally disguise themselves as independent hackers).

While digital anonymity and deniability are not absolute, the difficulty of tracing an attack to its source appeals to would-be cyber terrorists. Cyber attacks do not leave craters, so political leaders may be slow to react. Bank accounts bled of funds are not as definitive signs of warfare as dead and wounded civilians, though the damage caused by concerted cyber attacks against a modern Information Age nation-state's financial networks is potentially enormous.

Other networks also provide targets that create what strategists call "cascading effects." Computers guide America's electrical grids, monitoring and controling the circuits. A cyber terrorist who can cause an electrical blackout on a national scale gets an offensive "three-fer": 1) an attack on key infrastructure, 2) an economic assault (damaging commerce) and 3) a psychological attack seeding hysteria and perhaps producing political panic. U.S. security agencies are aware of this, which is why interagency cooperation and cooperation with power companies on cyber-security issues is a must.

While a digital Armageddon (a total-destruction attack toppling the entire Internet) is highly unlikely (a couple of experts I've spoken with say the entire Internet is simply too big a target), cyberspace is indeed an active battlefield.

In an interview earlier this year, StrategyPage.com's editor, James F. Dunnigan, argued: "The objectives (in cyber war) aren't too different from other warfare. You want to hit the other guy's networks but keep your own operating." As to what an all-out cyber war involving major "cyber powers" like the U.S., China or Russia might look like? "No one really knows for sure," Dunnigan replied. "We do have some indications."

Cyber-defense experts (based on the cyber weapons that exist and ones that are theoretically possible) identify three general types of cyber conflict:

 -- Limited Stealth Operations (LSO): These are cyber-war operations that primarily support espionage programs.

 -- Cyber War Only (CWO): CWO could take the form of a National Denial of Service (NDOS) attack. The May 2007 attacks on Estonia might have been an experimental CWO operation.

 -- Cyber War in Support of a Conventional War (CWSC): Russian cyber attacks on Georgia, while its ground and air forces were also attacking, are perhaps the best example. A CWSC can hit strategic targets (e.g., international lending and trading systems), not just the electronic weapons and communications of the combat forces.

Imperial Rome had many enemies -- and so does the Internet.

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