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If Not Cyber War, What Else ?

vendredi 9 novembre 2012, par François Géré

We live in a new volatile, complex environment. It is just the beginning of the Information Age. Our own life is transformed by technologies we have invented and continue to develop. Mankind has created a new domain artificial in nature which is not ruled by the laws of traditional physics. However from that artifice new machines and communication systems become at hand for science, for high-tech industry, the global economy and the leisure of the average citizen-consumer. In several countries the e-society is becoming a reality.

Small smart countries catch the opportunity. Great powers expand their power through that new area. What about medium powers, particularly in the EU ? So far the EU is lagging behind. ENISA was established years ago but it has not the institutional power to take initiative. Only the creation of a Commissioner for Cyberspace could give the necessary impetus. Urgent strong initiatives are badly needed. The use of Cyber creates not only enormous promises of wealth, It also favors the development of original ways of social and political life. However those opportunities bring new vulnerabilities, new risks, news threats, new causes of competition and confrontation.

Operations in cyberspace contribute very much to blur the fading distinction between war time and peace time. But for those who are familiar with real war, there is a significant difference. The more, in the West, particularly in Europe we forget the experience of war, the more we have a tendency to call “war” caracterized hostile activities which should remain distinct from the use of physical destructive violence. We don’t even know so far to define a cyber weapon or weapon system. What is a Cyber weapon ? Viruses, Trojan horses, botnets. More than that it is a combination of technical devices, processes and intentions. The choice of targets reveal the goals.

Cyber operations needs to be characterized as precisely as possible inside the overall spectrum which extends from perfect or imperfect peace to total war including the periods of crisis.

To be clear permanent competition does not equate with war. Among allies and partners, rivalry for their own interests stands, sometimes at a high degree. It is not war.

Some people in different countries are talking about “Cyberwar” and argue that it has already begun. Former CIA director Richard A. Clarke considers that the United States of America are loosing this war and points its finger against China. As usual such a view is challenged by any who considered that there is, no doubt, a serious competition, that aggressions are a matter of concern but that the term war is exaggerated and that the problems have to be fixed through better defense but also through discussions, diplomacy and other ways aimed at finding areas of common interests since China also suffers from attacks, even if the government is reluctant to make them public.

Let me begin with terminology.

War and Warfare are two different notions not easy to translate in French since “warfare” means the conduct of operations in a domain while war is in essence political and strategic. In his famous unachieved book “On War” Clausewitz defines as “an act of violence to force the enemy to do our will”. According to its concept, such violence has no limitations. War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Violence is the mean to achieve a goal. Physical destruction operations are aimed at breaking down the will and the power of resistance of the enemy.

As we can understand at first glance in the case of Cyberspace one part of the problem is relevant another part does not fit. Once again it depends on the distinction between war and warfare.

War where ? how and above all why ? What are the war aims and the benefits an aggressor would seek for ? Therefore, if we consider Cyberspace it may look irrelevant for “real” war.

Well it depends very much of the identity and the nature of the aggressor. Here we have two categories a person, a group, a terrorist organization, a state, a proxy ?

Cyber is a combination of immaterial and material destruction. However in the end operations in cyber generate effects in the “real” world.

Because in nature Cyber is a combination of physical facilities which allow the virtual system to operate. It ressembles the telegraph, a century and a half ago. An aggressor can use kinetic instruments to destroy the material infrastructure of the Cyber.

Distinctions are necessary between war in cyber and war through cyber. In the first case operations remain limited to the dimension according to a principle of symmetry, In the later cyberoperations are connected to the rest of conventional military activities. But what about “All out Cyber war” ? A major cyber aggression by surprise ( the Pearl Harbor fantasy) should be considered an aggression against the life of the nation therefore retaliation should not be symmetric. Were a Cyber agression aimed at destroying the vital interests. The principle of a possible nuclear retaliation against any kind of massive aggression against our vital interests should in principle still apply.

Here we must think that a massive scale cyber aggression against vital interests of the nation should/could be attributed the response would use all the means.

Actually we see limited hostile aggressions which are not war but take place in the framework of a rampant confrontation. Like the attack against Iranian nuclear facilities by STUXNET, Duqu, more recently Flame.

It can be coercion, intimidation, a protracted strategy to weaken a competitor and, step by step, deprive him from his initial superiority. Clearly Cyber is a perfect domain to achieve such goals.

A major distinction is war in Cyber (symetric) and war through Cyber using that domain to incapacitate the conventional military forces of the enemy and paralyze its C4I system (like Israel against Syrian air defense, on september 2007, Russia against Georgia, summer 2008). Cyber campaigns become the initial phase of war just like the air campaign to get air dominance was the beginning of operation.

Clearly Cyber dominance constitutes today the first phase of a war. To be fair it is not brand new stuff. In the late 1980 John Boyd, an American Air Force officer identified the OOADS which was based upon the acquisition of information superiority by breaking into the decision cycle of the enemy. It has been practiced since the first Iraqi war in 1990-91 and later on in the second war of 2003. Interestingly, that superiority has not proved efficient in counterguerilla operations : Irak (2005-2010) Afghanistan ( 2001-2014 ?) and to some extent during the Israeli war in Lebanon (2006)

At the end of the 19th century, it became a common place to say : the artillery prepares the grounds, the infantry occupies and conquers. Here the problem requires to bring together and combine the two components : the virtual and the material.


Detect, Protect, Respond, Retaliate, Deter : the problem of attribution and proportionality of the response. What is legitimate ? According to the UN Charter ? All those questions deserve answers in the coming years.

Diplomacy : the problem of alliances and the adaptation of current treaties. How relevant are the current disposition

We will face the development of increasingly sophisticated devices. Most recent statistics show that while the number of aggressions increases, the overall quality diminishes. But specific attacks are becoming extremely dangerous because of the high quality of the virus and procedures used by well educated, well trained practitioners. Those people are not amateurs but state professionals.

During the Cold War because of the nuclear deterrence stalemate the United States and the Soviet Union used indirect strategy aimed at weakening, destabilizing the enemy and ultimately cause its fall. Espionage, sabotage, overt propaganda, covert psychological operations (disinformation) limited war by proxies were the different forms of that strategy. One should save sometime thing how those activities has developed if Cyberspace and social networks would have been available on a large scale. Let’s mention that initially the Internet has been created during the Cold War and was aimed at keeping communication in case of a nuclear attack.

I am not a great believer in a Cyber Pearl Harbor.

I do think that there is a risk of progressive polarization between China-US, each country looking for dominance or superiority in Cyber. Now we see the emerging. In the US there is a rampant idea of a cyber gap which benefits to China. Those ideas are presented to a US Congress always interested in brand new topics that could be offered to their constituency, particularly in a period of economic stagnation and high unemployment rate. Military bases are closing. Weapons programs are canceled. Large investments on Cyber defense may appear an attractive alternative.

A Cyber Cold War, very different from the Cold War, without Berlin Wall but rather made of many fire walls might become our future.