Emergence of cyber-weapons as an instrument of deterrence | #government | #hacking | #cyberattack


Biden in his first visit to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated his perception about the growing cyber-attacks and its serious consequences. While assuring his full support to the intelligence community and that he would never politicise the work of intelligence community, he projected his assessment on the increasing state-sponsored cyber-attacks. Biden drew attention to the threats to American national security from the spiralling wave of state-sponsored cyberattacks, including ransomware attacks, against the US government agencies/officials and private industry having links to agents of Russia and China. In this context, he remarked: “if we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence.” This indicates the perception of the US.

Biden had also taken up this issue when he met with Russian President. Biden pressed Putin to curtail state-sponsored activity from his country and indicated his intention to deploy US digital fire-power in response. Biden also handed a “list of 16 critical infrastructure” from energy industry to water system. Both the leaders agreed to task experts to work out specific details in this regard.

Biden in fact has brought the deterrence element to the fore, which was the defining aspect during the cold war. This time it is done for the cyber-weapons instead of nuclear weapons. That cyber-weapons have a great role in deterring adversaries is getting acceptance in the international community. While criminals attack for financial gains and after getting the ransom, they allow the normal functioning of the computer system, the state-sponsored attacks cause serious damage to the system of the adversary.

The growth of cyber-weapons globally is a cause for concern. Cyber-weapons are digital objects that can be used to achieve military or political objectives by disabling the key functions of a computer system and network. These are malicious software installed secretly through concealed downloads or deliberate plants by human agents or malicious data or maliciously delivered data as in denial of-of-service-attacks. Besides, data collected helps in launching information campaigns and influence operations to change the perceptions of the target population about the ruling regime. Such campaigns or operations are carefully designed by specialists after analysing the data of people. In view of potential for causing damage by the cyber-weapons, most countries are devising strategies to deter their adversaries. Many of them are deploying cyber-attack corps for this objective with capabilities to launch attacks in cyberspace on other countries as an instrument of war, either alone or combined with attacks by conventional military forces. The current security environment is witnessing a sharp contest between the states on several issues. This state can be defined as ‘neither peace nor (conventional) war’ in which deniable cyber-weapons are being increasingly used to achieve the political, economic and military objectives.

A study of the cyber strategies of US, Russia, France, UK, Australia, Japan and China reveals that they place cyber-power as an important element for deterrence. The US cyber security strategy includes the launch of an International Cyber Deterrence Initiative to build such a coalition and develop tailored strategies to ensure adversaries understand the consequences of their malicious cyber behaviour. US had formulated a doctrine as early as 2013 for the joint cyberspace operations across the range of military operations. The French Military Cyber Strategy, released in January 2019, reflects the offensive part of the strategy. UK has included an “active cyber defence” programme. Australia in its 2020 National Cyber Strategy states the objectives are to prevent, deny and deter the attackers. Japan issued the outline of its strategy on the 7th July in which it stressed its ambition to develop a strong deterrent capability against its adversaries.

Russia in its recent policy issued on the 12th April 2021 considers the possibilities of interstate conflicts in this sphere; hence it stresses creation of an effective mechanism of interstate interaction aimed at preventing computer attacks on the information resources of states, including critical information infrastructure. In 2016 cyber strategy, Russia had clearly stated “ensuring deterrence” as the main objective. In Chinese concept, deterrence of cyber operations could serve the same purpose as the nuclear deterrence in international environment. For China, the cyber warfare is the decisive element in its strategy to ascend the international system and is central in military conflicts. It created Strategic Support Force (SSF) for this purpose. In addition, the PLA’s Unit 69010 has a number of groups which are hacking its adversaries’ critical infrastructure and influential persons.

There is a close relation between strategic deterrence and cyber strategy. Strategic deterrence now incorporates a well-defined role for cyber that is likely to expand in the future, and strategic deterrence has begun to play a role in cyber deterrence strategy. Andrew Futter in his book entitled “Hacking a Bomb: Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons,” has brought out clearly the implications of the cyber operations on nuclear weapon system. Experts opine that it is logically more stable and potentially peaceful to have a system of deterrence that is structured mutually across major powers, giving no one state the ability to disrupt cyber equilibrium. This aspect is the most important dimension in the current environment, when there are attempts to establish hegemony by super powers.

In essence, while the cyber technology and power has made our living conditions very comfortable, it has vast destabilising potential that has multiplied manifolds with the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other dual-use technologies. Cyberspace is being used to misinform and deceive populations in ways that subvert national unity and coherence, whip up polarising and deadly hatreds, and disrupt public infrastructure. Information warfare and influence operations have become very common to incite groups of population against their ruling regime. Interference in elections have become quite common by adversaries. By weaponizing cyber-power, a new concept of threat has been introduced. Simultaneously, military cyber applications are assuming dangerous dimensions. As some nations are using mercenaries and terrorists to attack their adversaries, such groups have now access to these deadly technologies. This makes the attribution of responsibility for violation of international law and accountability extremely difficult. The threat of cyber-attack on nuclear weapon systems carries the same level of threat perception as a violent military attack on them.

The cyberspace is thus emerging as a new additional but decisive battle-field. Pragmatism demands all nations to develop sufficient cyber-warfare capabilities to establish equilibrium. Weakness in this sphere can place a nation in a highly disadvantageous position and a victim of coercive operations. The cyberweapons are aptly called nuclear weapons of smaller countries.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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