The Fifth Domain

Originally posted: Mon, 20 May 2019 08:54:25

As I'm seemingly doing a series on Cyber Warfare, I suppose we should rewind from Hybrid War a little and define what CyberWar is. Let us enter the fifth domain of warfare, Cyberspace, and try not to get hit.

Traditional war is fought on land, at sea, or in the air. For a short while (although this notion might be having a small renaissance with Trump’s Space Marine idea), it looked that combat might move ever upwards into space, so much so that the USA went as far as creating a Unified Command to back this idea (naturally, this concept was gravitically attracted back to solid ground. I could go into a little rant over this lunacy, so keep your eye out for that, it should be fun). Cyberspace, however, seems to have only just garnered the attention it has so desperately needed. Given the substantial amount of damage that can be done in the digital realm, it is quite worrying that it’s only within the last decade that it has been taken seriously. It’s also rather disturbing that it is still not a public conversation piece.

The What?

So, what is Cyber Warfare exactly? Is there even a standard definition, or is that, too, like IW, trapped in a weird limbo of “it’s lots of things, and we don’t want to limit our options by defining it”? (Option B. It’s always Option B when there is a choice). Apparently, not even the great Wikipedia can settle on one unifying concept. One definition found in the book ‘Introduction to Cyber Warfare’, and based on famous Claus von Clausewitz definition of war, reads thusly:

“Cyber war is an extension of policy by actions taken in cyber space by state or nonstate actors that either constitute a serious threat to a nation’s security or are conducted in response to a perceived threat against a nation’s security.”

As it goes, I think this is a fine definition for bandying around a governmental/legislature chamber, but as something practical that actually tells us anything about the subject, it is lacking in detail a little. Richard A. Clarke offers up this definition:

“…actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption”

It’s nice, simple and describes a fight. And also feels like it misses the mark a little, providing little nuance to a rather broad category. Martin Libicki has this to say on the matter, and at least recognises there are different aspects to cyber warfare:

On Strategic Cyber Warfare: “…a campaign of cyberattacks one entity carries out on another”

On Operational Cyber Warfare: “…involves the use of cyberattacks on the other side’s military in the context of a physical war”

As you can see, these are a little more descriptive regarding at least the battlespace, but are problematic in different ways: the strategic definition can be applied to any entity, from script kiddies putting their newly discovered powers to the test; hacktivists acting in concert to deface/take down a poster website; cybercriminals using zombienets to mine and steal cryptocurrency, all the way to the Iranians planting malware to wipe a company’s worth of HDD’s; it’s just too broad in scope to be workable, although it gives us a starting point. That’s not to say that in cyberspace, war can only be participated in by nation-states, far from it: the running conflict between Anonymous and the Church of Scientology can almost certainly be seen as a war, one that involved both InfoWar and CyberWar: this is just another example of where the world of the electron and the baud blurs the lines of what we thought we had a pretty good handle on up to now.

The operational definition reduces cyber war to nothing more than a background effort in support of traditional, kinetic warfare. Now, while cyberattacks and other digital efforts can be utilised in

such a capacity, it does seem to limit its true capacity, not just in what can be accomplished in coordination with physical war, but also in how devastating the effects of a war fought purely in the digital ether could potentially be. Let us not forget, it is well established that a few lines of code can blow up a generator (Aurora Generator Test), destroy nuclear centrifuges (Stuxnet), or otherwise cause physical destruction directly or indirectly. And that’s ignoring all the other damage that can be caused by cyberattacks; overall, the only thing more devastatingly effective might well be nuclear weapons.

So, let’s try this definition on for size (my own contribution to the conversation):

“The continued offensive and defensive acts of aggression utilising all available digital assets against acknowledged adversarial entities in any battlespace”

I’ll leave the word aggression in there for now, but I can see how it might be superfluous. I think it covers all bases, explains that it can stand alone or in support of other conflict agencies, allows for multiple parties, including those non-nation-state actors that might want to engage, and specifies the speciality of the field. The “continuous” modifier was put in there as a scale descriptor – this is to separate from a one-off data grab or breach.

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