24 June, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

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Cyber Warfare: The Atomic Bomb of the Twenty-First Century

Entire nations can be torn asunder and whole armies can be defeated without the other side firing a single shot. This new breed of warfare is cyberwar, and it has already transformed the modern battlefield.

Every century, there is an invention which reshapes not only the way nations perceive conflict, but the very manner in which conflicts are fought. The 19th century brought about the discovery of electricity, the invention of Morse Code, and naval torpedoes. The 20th century saw the perfection of the automatic rifle, the fighter plane, and the creation of the atomic bomb, a weapon which could deliver destruction unlike anything we have ever seen before. In the 21st century, war has entered into an entirely new battlespace. Entire nations can be torn asunder and whole armies can be defeated without the other side firing a single shot. This new breed of warfare is cyberwar, and it has already transformed the modern battlefield.

In 2014, Russia began a forceful annexation of Ukraine. Russia believed that although Ukraine ceded from the USSR when the Soviet Union dissolved, the land was theirs by right, and that without Russian control the nation would fall apart. Moreover, President Vladimir Putin argued that most of Ukraine was inhabited by people of Russian ethnicity, justifying his move as an act of promoting Russian unity.

Ukraine on March 1, 2014, weeks before Russian Annexation. (From Britannica)

Despite a summit between Ukraine, the United States, and the EU in Geneva, Putin still pressed the offensive, pushing further and further into Ukraine which in turn prompted the U.S. and Europe to issue economic sanctions.. Undeterred by this economic warfare, Putin continued, but in 2015, he shifted his target to bystanding Ukrainian civilians. 

On December 23, 2015, three separate Ukrainian electricity distribution corporations were hacked and subsequently compromised by Russian cyber forces. Over 230,000 civilians lost power in a regional blackout. Historically, unintentional blackouts have led to limited access to running water, hospital failures, and major disruptions to the general flow of transportation. The CRO Forum, a group consisting of the world’s leading risk assessment professionals, estimated that an intentional blackout could lead to extreme and prolonged water shortages, causing hospitals, schools, restaurants, nursing homes, municipal stations, and the sewage system to shut down. 

Russia is not the only nation to target civilian infrastructure with cyber weaponry. In 2013, Iran attacked a dam in Rye Brook, New York, giving the hacker the capability to flood the town. The attack failed, as fortunately for the citizens of Rye Brook manual repairs were being conducted on the dam at the time, and the main flood gate was disconnected from the network. From 2015-2016, North Korean hacker group “Lazarus” hacked into the SWIFT global messaging system used by international banks to move money between accounts. Millions of dollars were stolen, and this incident marked the first time a nation has targeted personal finance with cyber weaponry.

Cyber military operations give nations the ability to impair critical infrastructure without leaving their country. With a relatively low barrier-to-entry, this new frontier of war allows nations to inflict massive amounts of damage on civilian populations. And things will only get worse. Defense experts fear that as healthcare, politics, and banking digitize, they become more vulnerable to cyber attacks, presenting a growing threat to day-to-day life around the world. In recent years, these fears have become realized as cyber warfare has been waged against democratic electoral processes, Olympic Games, and even international treaty organizations, such as the 2018 breach into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

However, while cyber ops present an emerging threat to humanity, they are also one of the best tools to defend against external dangers. Cyber attacks have been used to slow down oppressive regimes, cripple foreign military programs, and fight back against all forms of injustice without inflaming budget deficits and sending soldiers off to risk their lives. Moreover, cyber operations have been used to avoid civilian casualties and prevent the collateral damage so often seen in military engagements. 

In 2019, Iran destroyed a U.S. surveillance drone, prompting military advisors to advocate for immediate retaliation via a drone strike to deter Iran from committing future acts of aggression. This strike would have killed innocent civilians, and so President Donald Trump dismissed these suggestions, instead opting to institute a cyber attack against Iran’s military command and control systems. The move not only devastated Iran’s offensive network (if only for a short time), but also saved lives on both sides.

U.S. Army Cyber Command in Fort Gordon, Augusta, GA. (From Lawfare)

More recently, Iranian military compounds have seen a series of seemingly random explosions, specifically around their armament centers, nuclear development programs, and other military infrastructure points. While Tehran has claimed these explosions to be purely accidental, a Middle Eastern Intelligence officer who has chosen to remain anonymous believes them to be part of a massive cyber attack spearheaded by Israel as part of an ongoing offensive to stall the country’s military development. The most recent explosion, onJuly 5, destroyed parts of Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Site. No one was injured, but Tehran acknowledged that these explosions have set their nuclear program back “months,” and Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, revealed that “There were advanced equipment and precision measurement devices at this site that were either destroyed or damaged.” 

If the aforementioned Middle Eastern intelligence is correct, then this would be the single largest state-to-state cyber attack in history, and may diminish the threat Iran poses to the rest of the region. Kinetic strikes and conventional military actions could result in the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of innocent people, but through cyber ops Iran can be successfully deterred without causing damage to the civilian population or soldiers on both sides.  In previous conflicts, the United States and other allied powers have opted for either kinetic retaliation, at the cost of civilian casualties, or no retaliation at all. With cyber operations, there is a new, less dangerous, and more focused path available to these nations. 

Cyber operations are a weapon. As such, the human cost that comes with them is tied directly to whoever authorizes their use. In the right hands, cyber weaponry offers a safer, more focused, and less risky option for dealing with conflict without putting innocent civilians in harm’s way. In the wrong hands, cyber weaponry can be used to inflict tremendous damage upon civilian populations, and could be abused by nations to devastate other powers without regard for the citizens therein. As with all major technological advancements, cyber ops have the potential to change the world. The invention of dynamite brought along a construction boom, while also giving armies the ability to blow each other up. When the world figured out how to harness the power of nuclear energy, we could not only send scientific devices far beyond the reaches of our solar system, but we also used it to create terrifying new weapons. Cyber operations are another of these world-changing innovations. They are here to stay, but whether their legacy is one of positive advancement of violent destruction is up to us.

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