In a thought exercise we can look at why something isn’t going to happen regardless of how we feel about it. The idea is to raise up some of the concerns about a concept and evaluate it from differing viewpoints. In this example we are saying why a major cyber attack simply is not going to happen. To start out we make a statement then try to support that statement.
The reasons a “cyber attack” is NOT going to happen.
1) Where are the bodies. To start with military conflict is not a science. it is a form of ritualized violence between societies with a veneer of theoretical foundation primarily found in historical contexts after the fact. Military theoreticians apply the evidence that supports their hypothesis and discount contrarian evidence to the same hypothesis in an ironic refutation to the Popperian principles of science. No non-kinetic concept of conflict will never rise to challenge within the selection bias principles of such a pseudo science.This supports a first principle of such bias that unless it kills people and break things it is an adjunct to war and not actually war. A construct of theory built on that bedrock, and only using that biased information as evidence, will never accept other evidence and grow beyond that conceptual framework. Therefore, since it is not war it can not be a nation-state level of attack.
2) Cyber is the butter not the bread of conflict. Elements of cyber conflict have been adopted and wholly used by the military for centuries. Elements of the cyber “domain” (more on that in a second) are inclusive and exclusive purview of the military. By windowing the problem they are called things like information operations, electronic warfare, network centric warfare, and many other things. Entities within the various communities of interest try to bend the concept of cyber to their viewpoint. A quick story:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ ” the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ”– Duhigg, Charles (2012-02-28). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (p. 273). Random House, Inc..
That is the problem with cyber. We’re swimming in the concept and trying to define rowboats, snorkels, and goggles as the water. You can’t have an attack on the environment you simply can’t perceive and have any impact. That does not mean you can’t poison the water in our overused analogy. In our world though that would be called a “poison” attack not a water attack.
3) Domain is a word for give me money. The military construct of domains have no actual relevance in the real world. The air, sea, land, space domains are constructs created by people to delineate funding streams and balances of resource utilization. There are so many contrarian examples of the silliness of the domain construct as to be laughable. A senior military leader standing up and arguing vehemently the bean counting concepts stridently ignores and is blinded to true strategy.
The artificiality of the domain construct creates strategic blindness. The domain concept is an artifice of a fractured military and cyber is not a domain. Cyber is found in all the military domains as defined and in places those strategic silos don’t touch. Cyber doesn’t kill people it makes it easier to kill people. Cyber is found easily in the command and control of the military. It is in many other places but most military leaders and government leaders are unwilling to consider the advanced concepts of cyber that have nothing to do with the electro magnetic spectrum and networks. Things like big data, algorithms, and other things that make tools of war more effective. You can’t have an attack within a domain (e.g. “cyber attack”) if the concept of domains is intellectually bankrupt.
4) The tool isn’t the target the target is the target.
“Now let me get this straight. I’m going to build this strategic weapon called a bomber right?”
“Ok then, I’m going to arm it to the teeth and fly it over the enemy and all right?”
Sure you are.
“Then I’m going to leave all my bombs magically hanging in the air and crash and burn my strategic bomber into the ground?”
That’s how we do it in cyber.
Most conceptions of cyber warfare make about the same amount of sense.
I’m going to create a second or third generation cyber weapon (virus, trojan, etc.) and release it to go attack my rival. Not only imperiling and likely destroying my delivery mechanism (my network) I will then leave the little ol’ weapon sitting around so that my rival can shoot me with my weapon at his leisure. This isn’t to be confused with covert operations and zero day exploits. That is a different discussion. What we’re talking about is weaponizing the networks. I have good suspicions that this is happening but that doesn’t make it right. The military has fielded lots of really stupid weapons systems because they were cool or “fundable” at the time. Things like atomic weapons artillery that had an effective blast area larger than the range of the weapon.
There will be no cyber attack because the rice bowl ridden, bureaucratic bloated boviates, incestuous incompetents would not know a cyber attack when it hit. We’ve had hundreds of real world example of nation-state covert attacks through proxies from allies and adversaries. The cyber dimension of conflict does not fit the mental constructs of conflict within most leaders minds. As such it simply does not exist. There is some research that supports that it is absolutely possible for organizations and populations to simply ignore critical or catastrophic consequences of their actions and outsiders actions. I’m reminded of a movie “Erik the Viking“, and near the end of the movie of a utopian hedonistic island community they are all singing as their island sinks into the ocean. The protagonist Erik begs them to at least swim, but the leadership simply ignores Erik and the population drowns. Everything is fine, there is nothing to worry about, just <burble, burble, glug>