By Shivali Bhatt
A critical line of argument regarding cyber warfare today is how it has supposedly brought about contextual changes that challenge the balance of power in the international system. The broad consensus is that large, powerful states, like the United States, are losing leverage against those – traditionally – deemed small and weak. According to an article published earlier this year by the World Economic Forum Global Platform, the rising domain of cyber warfare can be somewhat seen to be causing a levelling effect in the world today. Any state or non-state entity with access to the Internet and digital technology can develop powerful cyber weapons. At the same time, some news sources have claimed how the much-anticipated cyberwar is already underway, and how the United States is not ready or will most likely lose. The simplistic nature of such discourse fails to allow for a more critical understanding of what factors influence the nature and reality of cyber warfare. This article shall critique these narratives by analysing the factors that influence the strategic efficacy of cyberwarfare. Bearing the current state of cyberwarfare in the United States in mind, it shall contextualise these factors.
The United States is the most powerful state in the world, particularly regarding its military and intelligence capacity. President Trump elevated the original Cyber Command to a Unified Combatant Command earlier this year.
The importance of intelligence and collaboration
While it takes a lot of skill and effort to appropriately develop a powerful cyber weapon, the most complicated part of this process is application or deployment. It is this stage that determines the extent to which a cyber operation will yield strategic leverage for a state; one that relies on intelligence agencies and international alliances. In other words, cyber weapons are generally part of an extensive collection of capabilities.
Theoretically, the state with the most resourced and well-connected intelligence community will likely reel in greater strategic benefits from the domain of cyberwarfare, on the basis they are active political players in global affairs. The more in-depth and holistic the collecting and analysing of intelligence data, the smarter the cyber offensive strategy. In this context, the United States has notable leverage. The U.S. spends approximately $1 trillion on establishments and organisations that serve a national security purpose; in which its intelligence community spans across seventeen federal agencies. Moreover, these bureaus have strictly woven relationships with a large number of agencies operating in other states, with bases and ground-level operatives in over forty countries, including Israel and the United Kingdom. As NATO’s Operation Locked Shields demonstrates, cyberwarfare is a multi-dimensional domain that is determined by the nature of cooperation and collaboration between states. The Stuxnet virus, for instance, was planted with the assistance of the CIA’s regional partners in Israel; assets that were crucial to such a clandestine and sensitive operation. These practical steps to implementing cyberwarfare strategies explain why the U.S. is still and will always technically be a dominant player in the field.
The broader political context
Given that cyberwarfare is an aspect of broader political strategy, states that are regularly engaged in international affairs are more likely to determine the context for cyber-attacks. The United States is considered extremely influential, while North Korea – regardless of how large, fast-growing or highly skilled its ‘cyber army’ appears – a back-seat driver. Narratives that present North Korea as a case study to exemplify the ‘levelling effect’ in the world today, often present highly fragmented arguments outside of context.
It is useful to consider how economics and politics are woven together into the strategic context of cyber warfare, given that a prime part of developing cyber warfare strategy involves gathering in-depth knowledge on a person or situation. Similar to how former President Obama’s administration exploited the weaknesses of Russia’s economy by imposing heavy sanctions against Moscow in 2014, Washington can gain a notable edge by targeting Putin’s private affairs offshore; the consequences of which would be determined by the extent to which Putin’s private affairs affect Russia’s domestic political context. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, the total accumulation of Russian offshore holdings amounts to approximately between $800 billion and $1.3 trillion; most of which belongs to President Putin and associates. This wealth power has been a contributing factor to his political power and ability to maintain authority in Russia, enabling him to govern and preside over state institutions and the secret police. Targeting his foreign assets would be a strategic application of U.S. cyber power.
In this discussion, it is useful to recognise the longer-term damage traditional military weapons can have on both intellectual and physical infrastructures, and how those induced by cyberspace have not yet demonstrated such ability. At the same time, the Stuxnet weapon and newer versions inspired from its technological layering, such as the relatively recent Triton bug, can act as catalysts to broader military strategy. However, the accurate deployment of such a weapon not only requires a significant amount of skill and resource, both of which are usually available to higher-earning economies but also can go wrong. In the case of Stuxnet, several sources confirmed that the Americans and Israelis ‘lost control’ of their act.
It goes without a doubt saying that the United States is a powerful influencer in the world today, and especially so in a context of increasing globalisation and digital technology. There are a lot of concepts, processes and cultural embedding that would also need to be in the firing line for this argument to hold any traction in the longer term.
Today, it is really popular to consider cyberwarfare as this rising domain that challenges all other pre-existing tenets of global politics, with the narrative being how weaker states such as North Korea are on the rise and those powerful ones such as the United States should watch their back. However, the authors of such arguments seem also to disregard any more in-depth aspects of warfare analysis, such as the power of alliance, broader context, and particularly the underlying factors found within societal construct and culture that have existed before the advent of the digital age. While cyber warfare has proven to be a powerful mechanism, its scope of threatening powerful actors like the United States needs to be assessed through a more critical lens. Further, doing so will help better conceptualise its strategic worth in comparison to more conventional methods of warfare strategy.
Shivali is currently pursuing her MA Intelligence and International Security at Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She is also a Series Editor at Strife, as well as a Creative Writer at cybersecurity startup PixelPin, where she contributes articles on ‘Thought Leadership’, encouraging readers to approach security issues through innovative means. Prior to that, she spent some time in Hong Kong under the InvestHK and EntrepreneurHK organisations, engaging with the cybersecurity and tech scene on the East Coast. Her core research interests include modern warfare and contemporary challenges, cybersecurity, and strategic policy analysis. You can follow her on @shivalixb