Friday, June 13, 2014

Cyberwarfare: A Predictable but Dangerous Future

By James D. McFarlin

Over the remainder of this decade, geopolitical and ideological forces will both govern the deployment of offensive cyber weapons and be shaped by the evolution and uses of such weapons.

There is no going back.


Cyber weapons will increasingly be used within the context of larger military, economic, or strategic-positioning goals (China in the South China Sea, for example), rather than as standalone tools of disruption. Even the use of the Stuxnet weapon, designed to disrupt Iranian nuclear enrichment, was part of broader diplomatic and economic sanctions designed to bring Iran to the negotiating table.

This is clearly evident in the current battles over control of Ukraine. Russian military forces are staged as a threat along the border; paramilitary forces in disguise are used for on-the-ground seizure, defense, and intimidation; and cyber tools are being deployed to spread disinformation, disrupt Ukrainian military communications, and incite social unrest.

But these are regional actions. The major cyber powers - the United States, China, Russia, Israel, and the U.K. - each have the capability to aggressively use cyber weapons to advance and defend their own national interests.

Is there a threat of major cyber conflict between these powers? I think not. They will refrain from such actions against one another simply because no one wishes to risk the consequences of counterattack and further escalation.

As offensive cyber weapons increase in power, the major nation-states will be pushed into a “Mutually Assured Destruction” position, just as we’ve seen with nuclear weapons. This ‘MAD’ scenario will be true in the near term, i.e. the remainder of this decade.

Circumstances beyond 2020 are nearly impossible to predict or even speculate.

The same is not true of the actions originating from terrorist or extremist organizations. Their actions are governed not by fear of retaliation but by a messianic zeal to destroy the Western way of life and its influence in the world. This is where the real threat to the United States lies, and it is the threat that must be dealt with.

My picture of how cyberwarfare will be waged for the remainder of this decade:

      Destructive attacks between major cyber powers held in tenuous suspension for fear of MAD;
      Regional deployment of cyber operations by cyber-capable nations to drive national interests;
      Unpredictable attacks from ideologically driven extremist organizations aimed at power distribution and economic systems of Western powers, primarily the United States.

Unless the United States maintains and exercises dominance of its power in cyberspace, it risks being pushed down the cyber MAD food chain. America will also be increasingly less able to counter regional cyberattacks on allies and will undoubtedly be the successful target of attacks on power supplies and financial sectors.


A comprehensive view of the forces shaping cyberwarfare between now and 2020 are discussed in my latest report, America On theBrink: The Race Against Global Cyberterrorism,” available in a Kindle version on Amazon.com.

("White Clock, Keyboard, Business Table In The Office" by Sira Anamwong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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