Cyberwarfare is difficult to categorize and describe, as hacking and other attacks of this nature may be politically motivated, or they may be simple acts of vandalism. Cyberwarfare requires no well-thought-out ideology, simply a challenge for individuals to take on the power of large corporations or governments.
When I was a student at North Carolina State University, I witnessed some of the effects of early Cyberwarfare. In 2001, following an incident in which an American EP-3 aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on a Chinese island, hackers were able to change Red Hat Software’s home page and post pro-China propaganda. The attack was crude and only served to disrupt Red Hat for a few hours, but it demonstrates the effect a small number of individuals might have on the information mainframes of the United States.
America’s technology is its strength, but our over-reliance on technology is our Achilles Heel. Any Generation Y-er can attest to what happens to their workplace (be it military, government or commercial) when the networks shut down—it’s time to go to Starbucks.
And many of our competitors in the 21st Century realize this. China, likely the emerging superpower in this century, has little means of force projection either by sea or air, giving her little ability to confront the US via symmetrical means. However, China does pose a significant technological risk to the United States via the development of anti-satellite missiles and pursuit of cyberwarfare capabilities. According to a report published by McAffee, the Internet security company, China leads the world in cyberwar programs, and cyber attacks have been traced to China.
Cyberwar groups may not be part of an organized government organization—governments can recruit individual hackers, even criminals, and pay them to attack the computer systems of other countries. This not eliminates the need for the overwhelming bureaucracy that would stifle the creative hacking process, but it also gives legitimate governments an air of plausible deniability when executing cyberwar attacks.
Cyber warfare has been witnessed throughout Europe and Asia, most recently during the South Ossetia War of 2008, in which Russian hackers attacked Georgian computers. While not effective, the attacks do show promise. Thousands of years before computers were even invented, Sun Tzu advocated winning the battle before it was even fought by sowing confusion in the minds of the enemy. With governments and militaries increasingly relying on computers for command and control, the potential for disaster looms large.
Cyberwar organizations are a highly evolved form of 4th Generation Warfare, and exhibit characteristics unique from traditional guerilla or insurgent groups. Hacker organizations require a safe haven (the un-policed portions of the Internet), much like terror organizations. However, this safe haven is virtual, not physical--hacker organizations can unite from all corners of the globe, even within the targeted nation itself. Unlike traditional terrorism, which tends to originate in areas where economic opportunities are limited and central government is weak or corrupt, cyberwarfare can originate simply among bored teenagers looking for a quick thrill, those with no real political motivation, simply young adults looking for a challenge. Unlike military organizations, which have a command structure and unity of command, hacker organizations may revolve around “swarming” attacks, largely de-centralized and difficult for traditional military organizations to fight.
The solution is not easy. Just recently, the US military came up with a Cyberwarfare division, aimed at ways of preventing attacks on the US. However, one wonders how a large government organization will remain adaptive in the constantly-changing world of cyberwarfare. For the time being however, it is an important first step for a military realizing the full implications of what a handful of people with a network of computers might wreak on our electronic infrastructure.