Cyberwarfare to be the new norm in world conflict

Michael McKee, Associate Editor

The arrival of the 21st century was marked by huge technological upheaval as well as the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United States. This dramatic shift away from the world of the past set the stage for what has become an intense and sophisticated conflict that today rages around the world. What separates this conflict from those of the past is that you might not even notice it is there.

The United States has the largest military in the world by far. It is projected to spend a staggering 716 billion dollars on defense in 2019, which is an increase of 82 billion from 2017. The U.S. spends more than the next seven highest spending nations combined. On the battlefield, there is not a country on Earth that could win a conventional war against the U.S. The only problem is, the wars of the future will not be waged on the battlefield. The U.S. has a distinct advantage in every form of conflict except one.

With the advent of the internet, suddenly countries that never stood a chance at scoring military victories have found themselves with a powerful new tool. The barrier to entry to cyberwarfare is very low, much lower than building nuclear weapons or buying a fleet of the newest warships, and its effect can be just as destructive. According to an article by IEEE Spectrum, the Stuxnet worm, for example, was thought to be in development since 2005, the worm was first uncovered in 2010 after it had begun to target programmable controllers (or PLC’s) around the world. PLC’s are basically little brains that control various aspects of industrial facilities such as centrifuges, assembly lines or power plants. Therefore they are a critical part of keeping things running smoothly.

According to an article published by IEEE Spectrum, Stuxnet specifically targeted Iran’s nuclear weapons program, infecting their PLC’s and causing the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. The worm is thought to be responsible for the destruction of one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, as well as the infection of two thousand computers and the physical degradation of over a thousand machines. Without firing one bullet or dropping a single bomb, the Stuxnet worm caused immense damage. As destructive as Stuxnet was, the outcome could have been much more deadly. What if instead of denying a country their nuclear weapons program they decided to deny access to electricity or clean water or even communication. Malicious programs could easily shut down the electrical grid of the entire east coast for example, or even destroy water treatment facilities, rendering unfiltered water too dangerous to drink. What happens when an entire countries infrastructure grinds to a halt?

This type of covert, subversive warfare is quickly becoming the new norm, and it has allowed smaller or historically less powerful nation states to get in on the action. The United States has quickly invested large sums of money to strengthen their cyber capabilities and the current top dogs that we know of are the U.S., China, Russia, Israel and the U.K. with some reports stating North Korea and Iran are quite capable as well. Russians are particularly good at sewing descent among enemy populations. They will use disinformation campaigns to deepen divides among political parties and the general public, weakening national unity and the target nation’s ability to retaliate. According to an article published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in 2018, Sir Nicholas Carter, Chief of the General Staff of the British army, stated that this kind of attack from actors such as Russia, “is a form of ‘system’ warfare that seeks to de-legitimize the political and social system on which our military strength is based.” In this way, seemingly non-aggressive cyber operations could be the first warning signs of military action, whether cyber or conventional. If the target state is sufficiently weakened or convinced that the aggressor is not the enemy, they would be less inclined to support efforts to retaliate. Why fight a war when you can simply make covert suggestions to your enemies people and get what you want without conflict?

This is why a strong Cyber Force is needed to protect the U.S. Many people think that this kind of new branch of the military is crucial towards the safety of our country. One such person is retired four-star Navy Admiral James Stavridis. Stavridis wrote in an article for Foreign Policy that “A hundred years ago, our nation began to appreciate the need for a separate Air Force; in today’s world, we should think about a cyber-equivalent.” Many branches of the U.S. military work in Cyber Security, however, there should be one dedicated, trained and independent Cyber Force that falls under the U.S. Cyber Command.

Satellites, banking, transportation, communication, trade, emergency services, the entirety of modern society relies on connectivity, without it everything falls apart. That is why this new kind of war is so dangerous, without a solid cyber defense system any nation could be brought to its knees by a foreign aggressor. Whether or not a bullet is ever fired, the casualties could be immense. This kind of new warfare will bubble below the surface for the foreseeable future, it will be there day and night year after year and we may not ever know about it. One important question to ask yourself is which is worse, if we know we are under attack or if we do not think we are?