Consequently, cyber attacks should be construed as acts of war. Are we prepared to respond accordingly?
In the spring of 2007, Russian computer experts hacked into Estonia’s government computer networks, blocked them from functioning, and brought the Estonian government to a standstill.
On August 8, 2008, Russian tanks invaded the disputed South Ossetia region between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet satellite state. One day before the tanks rolled in, Russian cyber attacks defaced Georgian government websites and then made what are called “distributed denial of service” attacks, which effectively blocked the use of the computers by overwhelming the computer servers with a volume of traffic too great for them to handle and causing them to cease functioning. Russian cyberwarriors also managed to hack into Georgian servers to plant malicious software. “Malware,” as computer security experts call it, modifies a computer’s software to either prevent it from functioning or to revise its functions to benefit the attacker.
We don’t know of any other massive attacks such as the Russian strikes on Estonia and Georgia from unclassified sources. Several nations—China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, among them—try to limit their citizens’ access to the Internet to prevent the spread of dissent. Myanmar (née Burma) has apparently cut off Internet access twice—once in late 2007 and again in November 2010—to place an electronic Iron Curtain around its population.
Sources say that a “cyber criminal,” not a national entity, made successive—and partially successful—attacks on the Brazilian power grid in November 2009.
What a nation does to limit its own citizens’ freedom is an act of oppression. But when one nation uses computers as a weapon against another, is it war?
No one would say that the Russian tank invasion was not an act of war. But what about the cyber attacks? Were they something less, or truly an act of war using an unconventional weapon?
THE TERM “ARMED CONFLICT” is used to describe war. But what is war? Is a war only a war if conventional weapons are used to fight it?
Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 text On War defined war to be “…an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” The aggressive use of armed force—like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941—fits that definition perfectly. Following Pearl Harbor, our two choices were to surrender or declare war, and we properly chose the latter course. The attack, and the declaration of war, not only united Americans in pursuit of victory but also justified our use of all of the force we could devise and deploy to win.
Throughout history, acts of war, either as aggression or in defense, have entailed similar foreseeable consequences for the belligerent nations: declaration of war and military mobilization. Conventional war was the clash of arms between nations; men in different uniforms fighting and killing each other to conquer or defend. It was the most definable of human activities, compelling a clarity of purpose that focused every aspect of a society on achieving the goal.
But then insurgencies became common, and later the idea that, for instance, a “police action” in Korea could be a war of limited purpose and duration in which stalemate was accepted as a goal. Clarity was lost. And then came the advent of global Islamic terrorism.
Is an act of terrorism a crime or an act of war? Is it necessary to prove, as liberals insist, that a national government is responsible for a terrorist act before war is invoked against it?
Terrorists don’t fight under a flag or risk themselves to avoid killing civilians. To the contrary—and in violation of the Geneva Conventions—terrorists intentionally target civilians. The pecksniffs of the UN and the media insist that the response to a terrorist attack be “proportional” to the attack a nation suffered. People who have suffered the most and the longest from terrorism, such as the Israelis, suffer the calumnies of the proportionalists who, safe in their ivory towers, condemn an airstrike in retaliation for a mortar attack on a village. The proportionalists, of course, don’t live in the line of fire.
What terrorism taught us is that there are no “front lines” behind which anyone is safe. Gettysburg and the Somme are battlefields historians and schoolchildren visit. You can’t visit today’s battlefield because it is everywhere.
THE CYBER ATTACKS on Estonia and Georgia prove that terrorism isn’t the final chapter in the evolution of war. Though terrorism and conventional war will always be with us, the concept of a weapon, and how newly conceived weapons can be used anywhere and anytime, is so fluid we need to be continuously thinking about it and adjusting to it—our adversaries and potential adversaries are. Because our economic, military, and intelligence communities depend on computer systems to function, within those systems is another battlefield that encompasses almost everything our civilization relies on to work.
Computer warfare—cyberwar—may be the most dangerous new kind of warfare because most Western nations don’t regard cyber attacks as acts of war. The 2002 publication of Unlimited Warfare, a book by two Chinese People’s Liberation Army colonels (Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui), proved the depth of one of our adversaries’ thinking on what may be the most important questions about war in the 21st century:
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