Consider Nitro Zeus. In the late 2000s, as The Times reported, the U.S. government developed a detailed plan for cyberattacks that would disable sections of Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and power grid. The plan provided President Barack Obama with a nonlethal means to neutralize Iranian military assets in case negotiations to halt the country’s rogue nuclear enrichment program failed and Tehran sought to retaliate.
The Nitro Zeus contingency plan remained active until the fulfillment of terms in the nuclear deal signed in 2015, ready to offer phased escalation short of all-out war if diplomatic and economic pressures proved ineffective.
Since Nitro Zeus was ultimately shelved, it is difficult to assess the scope and likelihood of the collateral damage it could have caused. The integration of cyberweapons into a national security strategy points to a certain reluctance to default to the conventional — and more lethal — option. But whether it’s a drone strike or the hacking of a telecommunications network, a cyberattack will always have harmful repercussions for civilians and private enterprises.
Counterintuitively, however, cyberweapons can also increase geopolitical stability.
Cyberattacks have helped nations achieve nuclear nonproliferation in a way that, in the past, would have required physical force and increased risk to personnel, said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who specializes in nuclear strategy.
In 2007, Israeli fighter jets equipped with 500-pound bombs struck a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria. The facility was destroyed and Israel was internationally criticized for violating another country’s sovereignty. Ten North Korean scientists reportedly may have been killed in the attack.
The U.S.-Israeli offensive cyber operation known as Stuxnet, which was launched around the same time, achieved a similar objective — impeding a rogue nation’s enrichment efforts — but from afar, with no human cost. The program destroyed nearly one-fifth of Iran’s operating centrifuges and may have slowed its nuclear program by up to two years. No one was reported to have been physically harmed or killed during the yearslong operation. It may have even deterred Israel from launching a conventional attack on Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site.
What does responsible use of cyberweapons look like going forward?
If cyberwar has the potential to channel conflict into a nonlethal form, now is the moment — before it is fully tested on the battlefield — to develop both treaties and unwritten customary laws governing its employment.