War Logs On: Girding America for Computer Combat

Some call the NATO intervention in Kosovo a victory (the deportees were returned, and NATO suffered no casualties). Others call it a failure (thousands of ethnic Albanians were killed, and thousands of Serbs were left homeless). But there is another way to think about Operation Allied Force: it was the first time the United States went to war since Netscape went public.

An odd yardstick? Not really. We are in the computer age now, and Kosovo was the first major military operation that required U.S. leaders to decide whether, when, and how to use a new form of warfare: computer network attack. Computer warfare (to use a less technical term) is a byproduct of the information revolution. The explosive growth of electronic devices and communications networks has created a new way for armies to strike their opponents.

U.S. forces reportedly planned several computer warfare operations during Operation Allied Force. Some appear to have been successful, some clearly failed, and still more were aborted for a variety of reasons. But even these early efforts have raised issues that are bound to become increasingly important. Should the United States conduct computer war? Should certain targets be off-limits? Who should be responsible for taking warfare on-line? Is America prepared? These questions were quietly debated during the last decade within the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the intelligence community. But without answers, the United States could fall behind in a critical new dimension of military power. Moreover, the broad issues of computer warfare must be debated openly, because U.S. policy will depend heavily on public and industry support.

AN ELECTRONIC PEARL HARBOR?

Computer warfare first emerged from classified circles in the mid-1990s, when U.S. officials warned that terrorists and hostile countries might someday attack American computers and communications systems. Their concerns were genuine, but these alerts about an "electronic Pearl Harbor" did not give the full picture. In fact, U.S. defense experts have been as intrigued by the prospect of attacking an opponent's computer networks as they have been worried that someone might attack their own. Officials recently began to talk openly about such offensives because several developments made the opportunities obvious and irresistible.

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