The Rise of Cyber and the Changing Nature of War

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“The nature of war is changing, so you don’t have to have two tanks shooting at each other to call it war. You could very much argue that we’re already in the midst of an information war.” – Dr. Jean Renouf

The rise of cyber warfare today challenges Clausewitz’s notion of the centrality of violence to the nature of war. It does so because the evolution of technology has enabled the potential for non-violent forms of conflict. 

The distinguishing feature of violence is its physicality, or the ability to produce an outcome through physical force, and this contrasts with cyber warfare which produces outcomes, physical or non-physical, through the application of digital effect.

This questions whether the nature of war is still primarily reliant on the physical destruction of enemy forces or if it encompasses more. It is increasingly critical to engage with this idea as grey zone actions and information operations become more prevalent.

Major power war produces serious consequences, such as degrading the international order and risking, in the absolute worst-case-scenario, the extinction of humanity in the event weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are employed. In order to prevent such an event happening, most nations subscribe to using WMD as a deterrent to prevent an enemy from attacking them or from attempting to coerce them. 

This means that, in a general sense, conflicts between major states prefer not to be resolved by traditional warfare as the likelihood of escalation, and thus the use of WMD, becomes too great to risk. 

This leads to ‘softer’ methods of coercion and shaping, such as cyber warfare.

The cyber domain is a man-made operating domain that is comprised of networks of interconnected devices, sensors and interfaces. Largely due to its emerging nature, the technology is driving capability at a pace far outstripping governance and control. The result is growing dependence partnered with growing vulnerability. 

This exposes the networks and internal systems to a wide variety of threats as well as creating opportunities for offensive manoeuvre. In this respect, the emergence of the cyber domain adds an additional dimension complementing traditional warfare, but it is also increasingly separate to traditional clashes between military forces. 

Cyber warfare is seen as having the potential to shape, disrupt and disable conventional military and civilian capabilities (most notably infrastructure). Cyber warfare occurs continuously across the cyberspace domain. This results in a wide range of effects: from minor disruptions (website defacement; theft of national defence information and intellectual property) up to strategic impacts (such as the use of the StuxNet virus to disable Iran’s nuclear fuel processing plants).

While war will always be politically motivated, and there will always be some degree of interaction as long as there are states and actors involved, the notion that war will remain violent is less certain with the rise of cyber warfare

To date, violence in war has been defined by the human role in conflict, where individuals fight each other on a physical battlefield.

Since the Industrial Revolution, societies are technologically driven and thus warfare has become more technology based. Evidence of this shift can be seen in the growing dependence on information systems, such as intranets, GPS, unmanned/robotic vehicles, and automated systems. 

This trend towards robotic and digitised systems has resulted in the rise of digitised conflict and the idea that disruption may be just as, if not more, effective than destruction in achieving desired outcomes. This becomes more appealing if it also entails less risk and resourcing overheads.

The idea that cyber warfare is inherently non-violent, however, means that it fails to meet one of Clausewitz’s defining criteria for what is war. So, is violence relevant anymore? 

The notion of violence as inherent to the conduct of war must be viewed in the context of the times in which Clausewitz wrote. His analysis was based upon reviewing war in its historical form which reflected the clash between standing armies fighting pitched battles to secure an overwhelming victory in the field. 

While technology, such as the advent of gunpowder and cannons, changed the character of war it remained a violent clash of wills between massed armies. 

This feature held true into the twentieth century; as witnessed by the two world wars of this period. The essential feature of violence, both legally and practically, reflected the limited means for nations to forcefully secure their political goals (be that acquiring territory and resources or defeating a foe). 

Now cyber capabilities offer the promise of achieving political effects without the need to resort to violent clashes (though it remains a clash of wills).

Since war is politically driven, it is used to achieve certain aims by an actor; and the outcome matters more than means. Cyber warfare now can play an increasingly critical role in achieving outcomes through disruption and coercion. This effectively meets the essence of what war is. 

Violence may still be a feature of war, but it does not necessarily need to be the defining feature for the future. The inter-connected and inter-dependant nature of the modern world means that cyber-related activities, which may encompass anything from disinformation to aggressive cyber-attacks, can achieve significant effects with less risk and less attribution. 

These developments have led to the rise of the cyber domain as an increasingly central part of national power and strategy. Importantly, cyber warfare enables coercion without force which can reduce the appearance of aggression and not threaten escalation in the way conventional force might. This could take the form of any number of things: economic sanctions, disinformation campaigns, active cyber attacks, and so on. 

While these methods are decidedly not violent, they are often used to achieve political goals that would have historically been achieved through war as we have known it; through violence. 

Of course the counter argument is that without violence we’re not talking about war but international politics; which can also be uncertain and effects-based. While this is true, in the information age cyber capabilities have a lower barrier for entry which may enable smaller powers or non-state actors to achieve strategic effects against major powers. And this has major implications for national strategies and capabilities.

Another contrary point is that the enemy always ‘gets a vote’ and while we may elect to operate in the cyber domain the enemy may prefer responding with physical violence to responding in kind. The rise of cyber does not preclude violence as an option in war, but it’s growing predominance asks whether violence remains a necessity to the conduct of war. 

What this does highlight, however, is that war will remain an interactive, and human, endeavour, regardless of the means by which it is conducted.

The notion that the nature of war is enduring is under threat; the application of violence and force is only relevant in the physical realm. This suggests one of two outcomes: either the definition of violence must be expanded beyond physical conflict to include cognitive and moral conflict, or violence’s place in Clausewitz’s ‘Fascinating Trinity’ is not sacrosanct.

Modern technology facilitates non-violent forms of conflict which directly challenges the Clausewitzian definition of the nature of war. Cyber warfare is the use of digital effect to produce an outcome, whether physical or otherwise, while violence itself is the use of physical force to produce an outcome. 

This point leads to a broader discussion on war: is war purely about the physical destruction and death that has historically been central or is it more about achieving effective outcomes?

About the Author: Officer Cadet Chris Wooding is a trainee officer in the Australian Army. He is currently at the Australian Defence Force Academy studying a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science. He has a strong interest in military history, and the evolving nature of conflict and the profession of arms.