John Stokes

Rules of war for cyberspace

Rules of war for cyberspace
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The Obama administration is planning to rewrite the rulebook for warfare establishing new laws for war in cyberspace including a series of international agreements that will spell out just what actions are permissible and what will be considered an act of war. For the first time, countries like China, which launch millions of attacks every day will face the prospect of retaliatory action, including the use of a new arsenal of cyber weapons.

As this blog predicted, President Obama announced last week a series of major new initiatives designed to secure cyberspace from attack. Much of the reporting has focused on the creation of a new office in the White House to coordinate cyber activity and the creation of a new Cyber Command in the Pentagon to manage offense and defense.

While such bureaucratic window dressing is perhaps necessary, the facts are that the US already has extensive offensive capabilities. If the Pentagon wished, it could turn off the lights in Beijing or raise the sluice gates of the dam on Three Gorges Dam and kill millions of people. So the weapons are already developed and ready for use. What is lacking is any kind of developed military doctrine that would allow these weapons to be used in a context that military and political leaderships around the world could understand.

Conventional warfighting has evolved over centuries and the doctrine for the use of force between nations is very well understood. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) provides a deterrence structure that prevents the use of nuclear weapons and international agreements make sure that accidental war does not break out. There are no effective international agreements in cyberspace, no cyber war fighting doctrine and no real understanding between governments about what is offense and what is defense. This has allowed countries like Russia and China to attacks other nations with impunity and steal billions of dollars in intellectual property while raping and pillaging inside the infrastructure of foreign governments.

Buried in the 76-page cyber strategy report that accompanied last week’s Presidential announcement is a clue to what lies ahead: “The Nation also needs a strategy for cybersecurity designed to shape the international environment and bring like-minded nations together on a host of issues, such as technical standards and acceptable legal norms regarding territorial jurisdiction, sovereign responsibility, and use of force.”

What this means is that the Obama administration will begin sounding out allies to start the creation of a cyber warfighting doctrine. At the same time, the administration will engage with other countries such as China and Russia to explain that in the near future there could be a heavy price to be paid for attacks launched on American or allied targets through cyberspace.