Is Cyberwar Real?

Gauging the Threats

Thomas Rid (“Cyberwar and Peace,” November/December 2013) describes cyberattacks as somehow separate from conventional warfare because they fail to meet all three of Clausewitz’s definitions of war as violent, instrumental, and attributable to one side as an action taken for a political goal. Therefore, he says, “cyberwar has never happened in the past, it is not occurring in the present, and it is highly unlikely that it will disturb the future.” But his argument is a simplified representation of the complex realities of war and security today and their inherent links to cyberspace.

Today, the world is so immersed in technology that activities in cyberspace have become inseparable from the everyday operations of business, education, government, and the military. Actions online affect actions offline, and vice versa. Thus, far from being separate from conventional war, as Rid would have it, cyberwar is deeply embedded in contemporary military practices.

Cyberwar, in fact, is part of the evolution of conventional warfare, which itself is linked to broader social and political change. It is no longer easy to imagine a confrontation that does not include some element of cyber-activity, such as surveillance or sabotage. Asking whether cyberwar is real, then, is less important than concentrating on how to contain the threats posed by some uses of computer technology. After all, a cyberattack need not kill someone or cause major material damage to still be considered dangerous.

Moreover, understanding war as solely physical contestation is an unnecessarily limited view. Consider, for example, nonlethal military tactics that fall under the broad category of strategic communication, which include psychological operations. States and militaries seeking to avoid unnecessary or disproportionate killing need to find other ways to influence potential adversaries and strengthen ties with allies. Strategic communication seeks to coerce enemies and sway allies and includes operations in peace as well as war, blurring the line between the two.

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