Of this and that the cyberwar lexical conflict


The question almost certainly has to be asked at some point in time. Can a cyberwar topple a nation state? If you say yes you’re a fan boy, and if you say no you’re a skeptic. Regardless of the rickety strawman you’ve created. At the point of contention is a debate over the validity of the nation state and catastrophic collapse possibility. In this corner we have Jeffrey Carr in Seattle, author and CEO stating yes cyberwar is possible and arguing for an expansion of the concepts of cyberwar to mean war. In the other corner you have Dr. Thomas Ridd in London arguing that we not be quite so hasty and perhaps a cyber war isn’t all it is expected or hyped to be. Standing on his chair just hoping somebody taps him in is a budding defense intellectual out in Salt Lake City Sean Lawson.

Poking holes in the  hope filled balloons of Dr. Lawson it is quite apparent that we’ve been expanding the definition of war as America placed the war on drugs, war on poverty, war on terrorism, war on the ugly and so much more into our lexicon. There are most definitely issues with this expansionism since the word “war” has legal, moral, and political repercussions. Have we achieved cyberwar? The term is nearing on meaningless as used by Dr. Lawson and Dr. Ridd. That does not ignore the capacity to kill people and break things as pointed out by Jeffrey Carr.

What we do know is that Clausewitz definition used by Dr. Ridd may be a bit of a problem. The Clausewitz definition of war as a continuation of politics through other means is a hollow first and second generational conceptualization. Pulling out my trusty pocket edition of “On Thermonuclear War” by Herman Khan I see that war is basically a useless concept when bumped up against Clausewitz and nuclear weapons. There is no political purpose only strategic survivability. Third generation war and nuclear weapons trumps Clausewitz.

That is one of the problems of defense intellectuals trotting out their pet theories. Some of the pets have rabies.

Well perhaps Jeffrey Carr is correct in his brief summation, but unfortunately his fire for effect is off target too. We do have rules for war and none of his three examples make the cut. In fact Sean Lawson and Dr. Ridd are also completely lost in the wandering. Though when you talk about the Laws of Armed Conflict you get so close. Carr makes the mistake of expansionism in a world where the words have defined and specific scope. First, the phrase “act of war” is a political phrase and nearing on useless when talking about cyber in most contexts. History is littered by excuses for war, and ignored provocations of conflict. To have war it can only be between nation states. No caveats. That is the Law of Armed Conflict. Oh, sure… You can find counter examples. But, here is the tragedy. It is in writing.

This is the way it works.

Read the United Nations Charter  39 to 2(4) to 51

Article 39 (41, 42, etc) 

The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Article 2(4)

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

So, everybody enjoy the pixie dust, fairies, and unicorns up until a dispute (between nation states) so that 2(4) is in force, unless there is a threat of force against the territorial integrity (remember cyber space without borders?), and finally if bad stuff happens you can rock and roll and kick the door down.

So, assassination is not an act of war (arghh) nor is it an actionable event as an attack on the territorial sovereignty of a nation state. So, call most cyber events what you will it most likely is a conflictual space below the threshold of war (hellowdy espionage). Now that doesn’t mean cyber war is impossible as Dr. Ridd seems to be suggesting from some shallow intellectual sea. I don’t think he even means that. His argument seems to come around to unlikely. We of course can argue that saying nothing will not occur is in fact an attribute of the thing actually occurring. We could say that we have no evidence to suggest it will occur but may have or could in the future (following a nice Popperian refutation argument). However, I’ll suggest that cyber conflict has more than the capacity to inflict grievous and substantial harm. That in fact technically the tools of systemic deconstruction as analysis technique, disruption and degradation of large scale systems, and the inherent risk to critical systems are absolutely provable on a daily basis.

Sitting here fingering through a worn copy of Herbert Kahns testament to the moral character of defense intellectuals I’m reminded that strategic thermonuclear war has not occurred. I’m rather pleased by that. We made it past 1975 in fact without a strategic engagement of thermonuclear levels. Nobody is going to argue that it is not possible to melt a country into glass based on the tactical use of the weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and evident testing in multiple other locations. We have extensive real world examples of the fragility of the environment and infrastructures. However, which nation state is going to release the ravening digital hounds knowing they might bite their own master?

Absence of something does not mean it can’t exist. In the use of the word war within the legal definition we haven’t had a cyber war yet. We have not only the capacity but the principle tools in place to wage a cyber war. Spend a few hours reading the papers from about any hacker conference and you’ll be deeply concerned (for the English language and your bank account).  Now imagine that innovative thinking harnessed to a defense industrial base supplier and you can make some valid assumptions. Much like the nuclear dawn the cyber awakening has resulted in close security and rampant skepticism of the operational art being developed.

Make no mistake. There has not been a cyber war up until today. I’m kind of happy towards that. That doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity to create chaos and destruction. Only that so far the individuals and nations states involved have not decided too. Further though I’m a bit of a maniacal egoist myself I think the discussion between Dr. Ridd, Dr. Lawson and Mr. Carr is absolutely essential. This is the debate and intricacies of the public we’ve been missing. The debate is simply good for the country and good for the international community.

3 comments for “Of this and that the cyberwar lexical conflict

  1. ronfeldt
    November 1, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    somewhere years ago, in a paragraph i can no longer locate (and maybe we discarded), i tried to distinguish between cyberwar (one word) versus cyber war (two words). in this view, “cyberwar” referred to john arquilla’s and my original formulation, which was military in nature, and mostly about ways of organizing, knowing, and fighting, and had little to do with computer code attacks. on the other hand, “cyber war” would refer mainly to computer code attacks, to aggressive hacking. in this view, such a distinction would speak to the point that military cyberwar was not mainly, or necessarily, about cyberspace-based cyber war. but it’s an awkward way of making such a distinction, and could be confusing too. in any case, the two terms have since taken on lives of their own, often interchangeable ones at that, as writings by you, Betz, Carr, Rid, and others show. yet, i think the point still merits reiteration: warfare can be organized and conducted according to cyber principles without necessarily involving cyberspace or computer code attacks.

  2. sam
    November 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    I’ve had many of the same discussions with others over what it means to concatenate words like high+school to highschool. Usually an etymological discussion will quickly degenerate into the meaning of ontological semantics, but there is utility in looking at what we mean. Especially in the world of break things and kill people we find in the capacity to make war.
    I think it is interesting the construction of “ways and means” versus “capabilities and capacities” type argument. I wholly construct cyber+war in various ways purposefully especially on the blog format. In my formal writing I used to be able to separate them as cyber( )war but now editors have their own minds on what it means. It is instructive to consider the domain+war construction in my mind. We talk about land war rarely. We nearly never talk about sea war, or air war, but more than often refer to air power and sea power.
    I think there is something there in the conceptual understanding. I am though constantly reminded that a former colleague of yours Mr. Kahn brought us Thermonuclear War and it has remained as a constant construction and concept cemented in our minds. Hope you’re doing well Doctor I’ve missed seeing your missives lately. You are always welcome here and abouts.

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