Defining the Qualities of Cyber Warfare

By Jarno Limnell


Cyber warfare is one of the hottest topics currently trending in newsfeeds and, although many are quick to use the term, not everyone fully understands the concept. Cyber warfare is a reality, but the reality of the situation may be far different than many believe.It’s notable that we’re already living in an era of state-led cyber warfare activities, even if most of us aren’t fully aware of it.


The Reality

“We are at the beginning of a new and dangerous era of cyber warfare,” according to the CEO of Kaspersky Lab Eugene Kaspersky, and F-Secure chief research officer Mikko Hypponen. An article in the UK’s TheGuardiansummarized their presentation at the DLD13 conference in Munich, and the summary was not pretty.

The reality is not pretty either. Governments are taking potential threats seriously, with at least 12 of the world’s 15 largest military powers building cyber warfare programs that assess tactics and capabilities that will be critical in any future war. Intelligence sources additionally told ISSSource that the number of intrusions and attacks has increased dramatically over recent years.

Accusations about cyber attacks are also on the increase worldwide, with Iran ranking high on the accusation and danger list, according to Iran has become “a force to be reckoned with,” U.S. Air Force’s Space Command leader General William Shelton said in a January speech in Washington, D.C. reports that Iran has been fortifying its own cyber attack capabilities following the Stuxnet malware attacks believed to have resulted in the explosion of several Iranian nuclear centrifuges.


The Changes in Warfare

The world is moving towards a greater strategic use of cyber weapons to persuade adversaries to change their behavior. At the same time it is essential to understand that cyber operations, such as cyber espionage and cyber attacks, are now a recognized part of strategic influence and combat.

Past conflicts required soldiers that were physically and mentally tough enough to succeed in battle, but strength is no longer the only requirement for fighting wars. Physical strength need not be an issue at all for the new breed of soldiers that instead must possess a sophisticated knowledge of computer security and code.

“Hackers now are either criminals out to make money, activists out to protest or governments engaged in targeting their own citizens or attacking other governments, whether for espionage or cyber warfare,” says The Guardian. Not every malicious attack, however, falls into the cyber warfare category, which is largely where unwarranted paranoia and misuse, and misconceptions of the term, arise.


The Misconceptions

What counts as “cyber warfare” remains an open question, but it does have certain stipulations. A major misconception is that cyber war takes place in a different domain, i.e. the fifth domain, that is totally separate and disconnected from all other forms of warfare, be it land, sea, air or space. Rather than being disconnected from all other types of warfare, the cyber “world of bytes” is an integral part of all other domains.

Warfare taking place on land, at sea, in the air or in space has its own cyber components, and the “world of bytes” is everywhere. It penetrates all the levels and dimensions of warfare, with cyber components prevalent in weaponry, communications, equipment and other war-related matters.

Any future crisis, even one not deemed a cyber war per se, is likely to have a cyber component to it. It would be tough to avoid it, particularly in major wars between developed countries. Cyber is the only dimension that allows you to have an impact on all other dimensions.

Cyber components may alter submarine and shipping steering, impede flight control functions and air-drop accuracy, interfere with satellites, cut off the distribution of electricity, affect the performance of smartphones, automobiles, prisons, and engage in a laundry list of additional maneuvers that shut down, deter or otherwise work to destroy your enemy.


The Definition

While Kaspersky limits his definition of cyber war to activity that uses cyber weapons to cause physical damage, only Stuxnet fits that definition to date. Cyber weapons can also indeed be deployed to disrupt command and control without physical destruction. A country impoverished by erased banking records, for example, could very well be a victim of cyber warfare although no physical damage has been done.

An attack that qualifies of cyber warfare must, however, occur in the political and strategic context of warfare.

“War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” says the famous formulation of Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. Chinese military general Sun Tzu’s ideal of warfare was “to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Neither case necessarily involves physical destruction, although both function as a means to achieve a political aim. The same holds true with cyber warfare. The cyber instrument may have its own grammar, but its logic is that of war as a whole.

The ongoing and sophisticated online conflict in Syria reported by serves as a prime example of cyber warfare. While the efforts on both the side of Syrian government and the side of its opponents are meant to “sabotage, disrupt and destroy,” not all involve physical destruction.

One of the cyber weapons was a destructive Trojan known as “DarkComet.” The digital-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation described it as: “a remote administration tool that allows an attacker to capture webcam activity, disable the notification setting for certain antivirus programs, record key strokes, steal passwords and more — and sends that sensitive information to an address in Syrian IP space.”


War vs. Peace

While it is painfully clear Syria is the midst of an ongoing civil war, many other nations are instead in a grey area that is neither a state of war – nor a state of peace. Cyber reality further blurs the boundaries between war and peace, adding a dangerous new dimension of instability. Instead of being an obvious form of war, future conflicts involving cyber warfare may instead become vague with no clear beginning or end. It is also important to observe that the concept of war might be blurred intentionally referring to different “cyber actions.”

The cyber (warfare) victims may not even be conscious of being in conflict with someone, just acutely aware that unpleasant, tangible things “just happen.” Those unpleasant events may be a regular occurrence or they may crop up at random and infrequent intervals. Although such events may seem to have neither rhyme nor reason, they could in fact be part of a larger strategy in the cyber warfare game.

Cyber warfare is definitely out there, but it should not be the catchall phrase for any malicious computer-related activity. Distributed denial-of-service attacks that have no physical impact should not automatically be considered cyber warfare, nor should activities such as spying. If cyber warfare were used to classify every single malicious attack or unpleasant event, we would be a war-torn world indeed.

Additionally, there would be no term remaining to describe a severely devastating and debilitating cyber war when it did occur in the open between nations. Truely defining what qualifies as war and what does not is challenging in the cyber realm. To qualify as official “warfare,” the term needs to be put into the right context as a part of the strategic and political decision making process. We can also take one more cue from Clausewitz who said that war is “the continuation of politics by other means.” To qualify as cyber war, the means may be virtual – but the impact should be real.


Published by InfosecIsland

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Bill has been a member of the technology and publishing industries for more than 25 years and brings extensive expertise to the roles of CEO, CIO, and Executive Editor. Most recently, Bill was COO and Co-Founder of and the parent company PSN Inc. Previously, Bill held the position of CTO of both Wiseads New Media and