In 2010, the world was introduced to what was possibly the first incident involving cyberwarfare. The Stuxnet malware had infected Iranian nuclear centrifuges, most likely for the purpose of delaying further advances in developing nuclear weapons. While the exact authors of the malware have never been acknowledged, the United States and Israel are the most likely countries to have created it.
The trouble with cyber weapons, though, is that they can be reverse engineered and redeployed by the very people who were targeted. And what exactly is a cyber war? In a traditional war, the lines of the battlespace are more clearly drawn, but as modern warfare has progressed into the cyber era, it’s difficult to discern where an ally ends and an enemy begins. Some argue that cyber warfare will be inevitable. Some argue that it will not happen. Since cyberspace is effectively borderless, and without specific sovereignty, cyber attacks are difficult to attribute to specific people or organizations, and they are difficult to confine to a specific geographic region or target. Stuxnet, the most sophisticated cyber weapon publicly known, has itself propagated “into the wild”, infecting computer systems far beyond its original mandate.
However you define it, cyber operations are here to stay: the United States has considered cyberspace to be the fifth domain of warfare (following land, sea, air, and space) since 2011, and NATO followed suit in 2016. In addition to nation-state sponsored cyber capabilities, a number of private companies now sell cyber weapons to governments and organizations around the world.
It seems clear that we are living in the age of cyber warfare. But like earlier transformations of warfare, from the trenches to urban guerrilla fighting, this new form of war has some differences and similarities to wars past. One notable aspect is how cyberweapons are used differently than traditional weapons. Bombs served primarily as a means to destroy an enemy, with disruption of the production of goods necessary to continue fighting an important, if secondary, component. Cyberweapons also serve as tools of disruption, but are more often deployed as a means of sabotage, as in the Stuxnet worm, or espionage, as in the recent events during the 2016 election cycle. While it’s conceivable for a cyber weapon to cause a loss of life on a large scale, given the odds of retaliation for such an event and the trouble of correctly attributing an attack, nations seem to be in no hurry to act offensively in the cyber domain. We will undoubtedly see new policies – and capabilities – for cyber warfare with each passing year.