Published in The Strategist by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) 9th December, 2021.
On Monday 4 October Facebook and its related social media platforms went down in mysterious circumstances for six hours. On the same day China sent 52 military aircraft into Taiwanese airspace, the largest and most provocative incursion yet. If military theorists are correct, headlines like these will be the precursor to World War III.
“If military theorists are correct, headlines like these will be the precursor to World War III”
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is a scenario that many fear will be the catalyst for the next major international war. And most pundits believe cyber warfare will play a major role in such a conflict, or indeed any future international wars. So a cyber attack that knocks out the American media to hide or distract from a Chinese move against Taiwan is not unrealistic.
To be clear, there is no suggestion that the Facebook outage and the Chinese incursion were linked. But it is a timely reminder of how vulnerable our networked world is to cyber-attack. But what role would cyberwarfare play in a future conflict, and is it as important as traditional ‘kinetic’ military operations?
There are three ways in which cyberwarfare may play a role: as an alternative to, as an opening gambit of, or alongside kinetic operations.
Some believe that the emerging theatre of cyberwarfare will completely displace traditional military operations, or indeed that it has already happened. This might be true, but if so it isn’t much to worry about. Shutting down Facebook, closing an oil pipeline, or interfering with the operations of a power plant, airport, bank or factory are all disruptive and costly. But the damage is temporary, and the world moves on. Cyber crime is part of the background noise of a modern economy, whether instigated by lone hackers, organised crime, or state actors. That’s not to say it has no cost. Defending against and dealing with cyber-attacks is a drain on economic growth, but modern nation states are robust and resilient institutions. If cyber operations are the sole plan a nation adopts to defeat an enemy, it would take a very long time and would certainly involve reciprocal retaliation to the side that initiated such a cyber war which might be similarly damaging. If that is the World War III of the future, we can rest easy at night.
Of course, a highly effective cyber-attack might shut down an entire country for some time. Imagine the disruption to a modern developed economy if it lost all power, communications and access to the internet all at once and it continued for months. But such an attack would be so devastating that the victim would likely feel a line had been crossed, that it was an overt act of war. Any retaliation would unlikely be limited to cyberspace.
“Imagine the disruption to a modern developed economy if it lost all power, communications and access to the internet all at once and it continued for months”
Cyber operations could facilitate kinetic operations (like an invasion of Taiwan for example) by disrupting the other sides communications so that’s its military hardware was temporary powerless to respond. Modern military forces are blind without radar and satellite imagery, deaf without the internet, and mute without secure telecommunications systems. In a short war, this might be all that is needed. If Taiwan is temporarily blinded by a cyber-attack, in a month the country might be over run, without the Taiwanese getting off a shot.
But in a longer war, any benefit of getting in the first cyber punch will be temporary. Systems will inevitably be restored, or workarounds adapted. A ship at sea can fire its guns and missiles without satellites. Tank crews and ground troops were perfectly capable of reigning death on their foes before the internet. In World War II Germany landed a devastating first blow on the Soviet Union in June 1941 when it launched a surprise attack – Operation Barbarossa – catching the Soviet air force on the ground and their troops unprepared. Japan was also successful at knocking out the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in a surprise raid. These initial successes did not bring the Axis victory. The greater resources of the Allies meant they recovered, wore down their enemies and crushed them. A cyber-Pearl Harbour is no guarantee of enduring success.
In a long drawn-out modern war, cyber operations will play a part. Military forces may no longer be able to rely on the satellites they have grown so fond of. Expensive weapons platforms reliant on modern communications to operate may prove a wasted investment compared to old fashioned tanks, guns and artillery. But cyber operations are unlikely to be decisive on their own. For years airpower enthusiasts were predicting that strategic bombing would replace the need for traditional ground operations. We are still waiting. Airpower has never alone won a war (as distinct from contributing to victory). Events are normally decided on the ground. In the same way, future wars are unlikely to be decided in cyberspace alone.
The real danger of cyber warfare is not that it will replace kinetic operations, but that it will incite them. The line between war and peace is reasonably clear when dealing with tanks, warships and aircraft, but it is grey when dealing with malware and online bots. If countries feel safer engaging in conflict behind the veil of anonymity provided by the internet, this increases the risk of a catastrophic miscalculation.
John Storey is a lawyer and military historian. His new book Big Wars: Why do they happen and when will the next one be? is available for order now direct from Hybrid Publishers and at all major book retailers. Image by Elchinator via Pixabay.