In 1984, a Canadian director and an Austrian strong-man created a film franchise based on an intelligent computer system that turns on its creators and wages war on mankind. The Terminator series went onto spawned many sequels, a TV series and even a horrible Nintendo game. Yet be not alarmed, there is no impending robot apocalypse. However, our rapid progress and deeper reliance on technology might be leading us in to a new era of war; adding new layers to an age-old human ritual that has constantly been streamlined and perfected. What does this evolution mean for the nation-state and its concept of war and security? How will these advances impact the century succeeding the bloodiest hundred years in human history?
War: Natural and Evolving
The evolution of society and the nation-state have closely followed our advances on the battlefield. From the discovery of fire, to the use iron and the advent of gunpowder, the turns of human history have often been dictated by the success of these new weapons. This rate of advancement has accelerated significantly in the last century alone, where the focus of warfare shifted from the armoured tanks to air superiority to weapons of mass destruction.
In a world ruled by commercial interests, efficiency is vital. This has been translated into the battlefront with the development of more efficient methods of destruction. New ground was broken in the 1991 Gulf War, where American troops leading a vast global coalition, destroyed Iraq’s million-man army and liberated the oil rich principality of Kuwait. This is often termed as the first hi-tech war. Gone were the gruesome images of Vietnam, this was a war for the computer age. In fact, thanks to the use of graphics and aerial images, the Gulf War was viewed like a modern-day video game; a clean war, riding on the success of laser guided missiles. However, the dream didn’t last long. Even as American warplanes were laying waste to retreating Iraqi columns, U.S. President George Bush Sr.’s administration was growing nervous about American perceptions shaped by the charred remains of Iraqi armoured divisions. You can only conceal the blood and the bodies for so long.
The limits to hi-tech warfare soon became apparent after the events in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, a lesson that was reiterated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Insurgents and guerrilla tactics became the only means to tackle the advantages afforded to technologically advances armies, much like they did in Vietnam. However, such tactics have bred their own counter-measures that are challenging military strategists, politicians and the public at large. This new phase of hi-tech warfare could render many conventions of the past useless. Advances like use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles to survey, track and destroy enemy targets has raised plenty of moral questions. They have provided states with low-cost means to dispose of hard to reach targets, similar to the use of proxy terror organizations to hit targets deep within enemy lines without putting “our soldiers” in harms way. Still, the images and tales of wedding parties becoming collateral damage has pulled on the conscience of some, reminding that war is never clean nor efficient.
However, one particular advancement has, at least for the time being, taken bodies out of the equation, so much so that some analysts are reluctant to use the word “war.”
Everything’s Going Online
Cyber warfare is either the latest platform for inter-state conflict or a gimmick that doesn’t fit the conventional definition for warfare. It may sound like the stuff of movies and spy novels, but the Internet has becoming an avenue for ‘violent’ political action. The actors include state agencies, patriotic groups (supported or encouraged by states), non-state actors and transnational actors, all creating the same sense of chaotic order that exists in the real world of politics.
The potential for cyber warfare has expanded with our growing reliance on technology. And while some question its intentions and utility, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) recently passed at the U.S. House of Representatives is an indication of the concept’s growing support base. CISPA’s proponents have often cited the act as a necessary piece of legislation to defend America and her interests against Russian and Chinese cyber attacks.
There have always been rumours of China and Russia fielding hundreds of computer hackers in secret facilities. Video game Company Electronic Arts even added them into their popular Real-time strategy game Command & Conquer: Generals, where Chinese armies field computer hackers along side tanks and MiG fighters. There have already been “cyber wars” between patriotic hackers, like the 2010 incident involving Iran and China. In such cases it is difficult to decipher the level of government complicity. It is quite possible that these young keyboard warriors might become a future form of state sponsored proxy terrorists.
However, there is a difference between shutting down the White House’ website or YouTube to cyber attacks that can make waves outside the World Wide Web. According to U. S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, a crippling attack that could shut down power grids or financial institutions could be classified as an act of war. While there have been very few cyber attacks that could be classified under this definition, the two most successful cases involve Israeli/American cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2010, a complex computer virus called Stuxnet severely dented Iran’s nuclear progress. Some estimated that the damage was so significant that it set back the program six months; it even bought about a lull in rhetoric coming from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office. The most recent virus named “Flame” has infiltrated users across the Middle East, making their webcams and microphones into spying devices. In both cases, experts concluded that the technology was too advanced for basement hackers and must have involved state resources. Reports also stated that both programs were created by the same parties with possible Israeli and American cooperation. With Panetta’s definition, it could be argued that Israel and America have already engaged Iran in an act of war.
Given the Wild West nature of the Internet, threats can emanate from a variety of sources. States like India that have a strong technology sector that has helped develop both cyber defensive and offensive capabilities to counter the threats they face from states like Pakistan and China. Iran has also invested in mastering various tools of cyber warfare and their capture of the hi-tech U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone may have been their crowning achievement. Research on China’s capabilities show a deep technical, strategic and even philosophical perspective on cyber warfare, often referencing Sun Tzu’s work to interpret the use of cyber warfare. A former senior Colonel of the People’s Liberation Army and cyber warfare strategist, Wang Baocun wrote in the mid-90s that cyber warfare strategy reinforces the notion of Sun Tzu’s “subduing the enemy without battle.” If China’s cyber strategy has continued to evolve since then, perhaps it truly is the formidable bogey man everyone suspects it of being.
Battles without Blood and Bodies
Organizations and governments all over the world agree that there has been a significant increase in cyber attacks. The United Kingdom’s security service MI5 has stated that they have been battling an “astonishing” number of cyber attacks, of which many might be duds. There are two unique characteristics that makes cyber warfare a double edged sword when predicting the future relations between states.
As war is always likely to exist as state interests continue to collide and conflict with each other, cyber warfare provides a safe, easy and bloodless option. However, the reason why states don’t rush into war because of every act violating their sovereignty is due to a cost/benefit analysis. War is expensive, monetarily and politically, and these costs often don’t justify the predicted or actual rewards. Therefore, if the cost of warfare was significantly reduced on all fronts, would it make states more likely to pursue it as a course of action?
Another issue is anonymity. Today, most cyber attacks are carried out by non-state actors like the hacktivist groups Anonymous and LulzSec. As seen with the 2010, Iran-China affair, it would be very simple for a state to recruit gifted programmers to attack foreign sites under the guise of hacktivism or individual action. One factor that was used to distinguish Stuxnet from a basement built program was its complexity, however, with the rise of competence in computer programming and the growing presence of gifted individuals not under a state’ payroll, it is not implausible to suggest that independent groups or individuals could create programs that can devastate state owned websites or knock-out a power grid.
Then there is the question of targeting civilians, a criterion of war that while not always followed, is accepted by all. State sponsored Cyber attacks that target power facilities, financial institutions, traffic or air traffic control systems are all targeting civilians. The consequences are similar to those of sanctions designed to target hostile or tyrannical regimes, actions that only affect civilian life. Even a minor attack that shuts down a popular website could be interpreted as an act against non-military personnel, particularly as the most effective cyber attacks will be against states that have strong information infrastructure that is intertwined with day-to-day life.
Therefore, the question remains whether a world of bloodless war, promises less inter-state conflict. Despite all we know, the concept of Cyber Warfare has not yet been fully realized. With the increase in national budgets supporting cyber security and intelligence, it is safe to say that the concept is not just a passing fancy. It may very well be the future of war, although its shape and utility remains unknown. Will states use this new platform as a proxy tool as many did with terrorism? Or will they draw clear, distinctive lines to define new rules of engagement for a new form of warfare?