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Will cyberattacks define the future of war?

Taylor Armerding | Aug. 31, 2012
Report of U.S. admission of involvement in cyberwarfare in Afghanistan does not indicate a shift in posture, experts say

Is the future of warfare going to be fought by soldiers using bullets, bombs and missiles -- or by computer geeks hunched over a laptop?

Both, say experts in cyber conflict, in response to a recent article, titled "U.S. Admits to Cyber Attacks: The Future of Conflict," by security specialist Pierluigi Paganini, writing at Infosec Island.

Those experts take issue with Paganini's example of an official admission by the U.S. that it is involved in cyber attacks, noting that those conducted on a battlefield are different than covert operations outside of a war zone. They agree that cyber capabilities are going to be crucial in future conflicts, but will not displace conventional weapons.

Paganini cited a comment from Marine Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, speaking in Baltimore about the war in Afghanistan: "I can tell you that as a commander in Afghanistan in the year 2010, I was able to use my cyber operations against my adversary with great impact ... I was able to get inside his nets, infect his command-and-control, and in fact defend myself against his almost constant incursions to get inside my wire, to affect my operations," Mills said.

"It's the first time that a high official admitted these types of offensive operations take place in Afghanistan, despite that it is reasonable to imagine the involvement of cyber units," Paganini wrote.

Marc Zwillinger, an attorney with ZwillGen and a specialist in government and private roles in cyberwar, agrees that Mills's statement is an official acknowledgment of the use of cyber weapons in war.

"But I think there is a difference between acknowledging that cyber is a weapon in the arsenal in wartime and acknowledging covert actions like Stuxnet," he said. "In some ways, it's the difference between acknowledging that we use high-caliber munitions in battle, and acknowledging we have a covert assassination program."

Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security, said there is not only a qualitative difference, but a legal one as well.

"It's the difference between Title 10 actions by the military and Title 50 actions by the CIA. In practice, they may use the same tools, but the tools about who, what, when, where and how are completely different," he said, adding that the U.S. has been using cyber weapons on battlefields, "at least since Kosovo."

Of course, as is the case with any relatively new weapons system, there are questions about rules and about effectiveness. "Today there isn't a legal and official definition for cyber weapons under the law perspective, and every government is working hard to develop its own arsenal eluding any kind of penalties for cyber operations," Paganini wrote.


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