Cyberspace represents a new domain of warfare in the international arena. Cyber warriors, be it a state actor, a non-state actor, or an individual, have the potential to inflict tremendous damage to civil and military infrastructures.
Cyber-warriors are the new warriors who wage war and win without their adversary knowing about it. They wage wars from their desks; controlling and using missiles, drones, combat aircraft, and other high-rated technology that have changed the character of war.
Gen. James Cartwright(former commander of the military organization, responsible for cyber warfare)told Congress in 2007 “America is under widespread attack in cyberspace and warned that a cyberattack could, in fact, be in the magnitude of a weapon of mass destruction.”
On May 4, 2018, U.S. Cyber Command was elevated to America’s 10th unified Combatant Command. At the ceremony of this change, the then Deputy Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan stated that the command has the challenge to strengthen “our arsenal of cyber weapons, cyber shields, and cyber warriors.”
Cyber-warriors have the duty to defend complex computer networks from adversary attacks and also launch a counter-offensive. After extensive use of computer networks in the areas of intelligence, surveillance, communication, it has been treated as warfighting.
The US at the mercy of cyber-attacks?
James Fallows claims that China does not even contemplate challenging the U.S. directly but in one area only and i.e. cyberwar. He also compares the strength of the U.S. military with China and finds out there is an acute asymmetry between them.
He claims that the U.S. has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier battle groups while China is building its fourth aircraft carrier which is likely to be nuclear-powered. He puts forth that in the crucial components of military effectiveness-training, readiness, and evolving doctrines, the difference between U.S. and China is not a gap but a chasm.
Max Boot, a military historian, did warn that the U.S. military depends heavily on GPS, satellites, and other related technologies but if these are hacked, the American military will be unable to fight effectively.
That is why the U.S. has invested much in cyber than other nations. But a threat of a cyber attack on U.S. financial infrastructure can make the internal accounting system go haywire.
As a consequence of cyber attacks, ATMs will cease to work and people queuing up for cash to continue life will cause massive chaos within America. As people are not used to it and when there is chaos, it becomes hard for police/army to control people as was witnessed during protests in support of George Floyd(victim of police killing).
Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 has made many believe that “cyber will be the key domain in future conflicts.”
Imagine with a strong cyber attack the national grid of any developed nation is hit and light is knocked out for several days. The whole nation is left without any energy supply and in the midst of that disinformation campaign can have a devastating effect.
Eric Rosenbach of Belfer Center quotes Richard Lawless (former deputy undersecretary of defense for Asia-Pacific Affairs) that “China has developed capability to attack, degrade and penetrate U.S. computer networks with the capacity to shut down in critical times”.
The Cyber race
The United States has already been preparing to counter such possible threats of cyber attacks from state and non-state actors. U.S. Department of Homeland security hosted the biennial exercise series ‘Cyber Storm’ with an aim to strengthen cyber preparedness in public and private sectors.
With the extensive use of the internet of things (IoT) and digital connectivity transnationally, almost all nations are committed to secure themselves against cyber-attacks. But the U.S. and its NATO allies are much concerned about China.
If National Security Agency(NSA) monitors private chat rooms, blocks websites, patrol cyber cafes, track cellular communications and track down internet activities that are considered as indispensable for security to avert any possible terrorist activity but in case of China, the same is termed as violation of human rights.
China is racing with the U.S. to counter the threat of cyber-attacks and strengthen cyber defense. In 7 years’ time, China will be having 10 world-class cybersecurity schools at Chinese universities to train cyber warriors.
China’s President Xi Jinping, in February 2014, took personal control of cyber policies by developing the Central Cyberspace Affairs Leading Group.
The new powerful domain of war
Some people pose a question that could a cyber-attack lead to a nuclear response? The answer must be a big No! But given the magnitude of cyber-attacks, the response of the victim has decided accordingly.
According to Arms Control Association, Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review were published online and there were widespread concerns over a dangerous shift in U.S. nuclear policy about the acquisition of low-yield nuclear weapons and enemy attack on U.S. Nuclear Command, Control and Communication(NC3) would invoke a sufficient response of justifying the use of nuclear weapons.
Russia and U.S. are often engaged in short fuses of their strategic forces which has increased the risk of an accidental nuclear clash. According to Gen. Cartwright(retired), “the sophistication of the cyber threats [to nuclear weapons]has increased exponentially.”
The cyber domain is the new but most powerful domain of war. In this domain, it is hard to find out the culprit behind the attack, they are hackers, cyber warriors, state and non-state actors.
There is a need to focus on cyber-diplomacy. Cyber-diplomacy works by building partnerships with other countries to enhance collective action against shared threats. Such an initiative will also be helpful in curbing bad actors of cyberspace.
Read more: Worldwide implications of Cyber-warfare?
The author is a faculty member (DS-Research) at Pakistan Air Force(PAF), Air War College Institute, Karachi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect her organization, nor the editorial policy of Global Village Space.