This is the second part of a paper I wrote for the Naval War College. In part one, we discussed whether or not a cyber attack can rise to the same level of use of force as a kinetic attack. The contents of this paper reflect my own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Naval War College or the Department of the Navy. I am by no means an expert on the cyber realm. This is a conceptual argument, nothing more.
The theories of absolute war and total war cause a great deal of confusion. Absolute war (or ideal war) is a theoretical construct raised by Carl von Clausewitz in his treatise On War. Clausewitz views absolute war as a war without limitations to means of victory. He does note, however, that absolute war is a purely theoretical premise and acknowledges that in reality, political considerations will limit military commanders in their conduct of war (Clausewitz, 1976).
Total war, on the other hand, is a war conducted short of absolute war that involves the full mobilization of the nation’s civilian populace and infrastructure in support of the war effort. Because the populace and infrastructure fully mobilize as part of the war effort, they become valid targets for the opposing army. An example of total war is the pillaging of Confederate states during the American Civil War under the justification of breaking the will of the people to fight while depriving the Confederate Army of needed war supplies (Janda, 1995). More recent examples of total war include the deliberate carpet-bombing of both British and German targets during World War II, along with the conversion of civilian production lines to tank or bomber production.
In the cyber world, everything is connected. The hard distinction between a military target and a civilian target does not exist. In order to target the power to a military base, attackers could target a nearby power generation plant or a power grid. However, taking down that power plant or grid could “bleed” into blackouts in surrounding critical infrastructure. That bleed could have severe effects on the local civilian population, especially if done during extreme weather conditions or on a grid with a hospital or other emergency services nexus.
Cyber-attacks offer an opportunity for substantial effects at relatively low cost. Take, for example, a future conflict between China and the United States. China is rising, and its goals are not clear. If they choose to pursue regional hegemony, they must push out the American influence from their sphere in the Pacific. If they pursue great power status, conflict may be inevitable, a possibility foreshadowed by the conflict between Athens and Sparta between 500 and 400 B.C. (Allison, 2015). From the perspective of a modernized military, China lags significantly. They certainly possess a numerical superiority, but they also suffer from an inability to move those numbers the distance required to use them to affect the continental United States. China knows this, and they must seek a way to defeat the United States in a deniable way that avoids a physical battle. As Sun Tzu said, “Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.” (Tzu, 1963) Cyber may prove to be the key.
China could pursue a dual-pronged strategy that would first destroy the people’s will to fight, while also impeding any military response to the attack. Targeting the economic, technological, electrical, and logistical structure of the United States creates an opportunity to distract the American leadership while China makes moves that would normally merit a military response. A simple glitch in the system provides no benefit, it must be a sustained outage that deprives the American people of necessities and conveniences long enough to cause pain, not mere discomfort. It need not rise to the level of physical death to people, although once power and supply chains are attacked, the death toll will rise as the duration of the shortages lengthen. As American General Philip Sheridan once said: “Death is popularly considered the maximum of punishment in war, but it is not; reduction to poverty brings prayers for peace more surely and more quickly than does the destruction of human life, as the selfishness of man has demonstrated in more than one great conflict” (Sheridan, 2004). A simultaneous, or closely following, attack on the military’s command and control and logistical systems would disrupt the military’s ability to provide a cogent response, whether kinetic or cyber.
This strategy is not without serious danger, however. First, it plainly falls within the category of both a use of force and armed attack. Under the United Nations Charter, the United States would be well within its right to respond either kinetically or in the cyber realm. Second, due to the international connections of the financial sector, an attack on the economic structure of the United States could easily affect many more nations than originally targeted. While this may cause further confusion under which China could move, it would also broaden the number of countries eligible to respond under the Charter, and possibly forge them into an alliance. Third, and closely related to the second point, China requires a market for the goods it produces. Causing massive economic harm could backfire rapidly unless China has a well thought out strategy for the aftermath of the attack.
Though the gap diminishes with every passing year, the United States remains the world’s most powerful military. However, weaknesses in our cyber infrastructure provide an opportunity for an adversary willing to wage a total war and suffer its backlash. A massive attack aimed at both military and civilian targets could provide the “shock and awe” and disruption necessary to prevent a kinetic or cyber response, or at least minimize it. Total war in the cyber realm involves many of the same risks as kinetic war, and could be every bit as devastating to the belligerents and the international order. The advantage to cyber-attack lies in its ability to strike far beyond the range of kinetic weapons and avoid attribution. It could prove to be the equalizer between nations with extreme disparity in kinetic forces, allowing weaker countries to assert their areas of influence without ever firing a shot.
Allison, G. (2015, September 24). The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War. The Atlantic. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/
Clausewitz, C. v. (1976). On War. (M. Howard, P. Paret, Eds., M. Howard, & P. Paret, Trans.) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Janda, L. (1995, January). Shutting the Gates of Mercy: The American Origins of Total War, 1860-1880. The Journal of Military History, 59(1), 7-26. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2944362?origin=JSTOR-pdf
Schmitt, M. (Ed.). (2013). Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyberspace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/nato_ccd_coe/docs/tallinnmanual?e=0/1803379
Sheridan, P. H. (2004, June 7). The Memoirs of General P. H. Sheridan, Volume 1. Retrieved October 9, 2016, from Grant Under Fire: http://www.grantunderfire.com/civil-war-resources/various-memoirs/sheridans-memoirs-vol-2/
Tzu, S. (1963). The Art of War. (S. B. Griffith, Trans.) New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
United Nations. (2016, October 5). Charter of the United Nations: Chapter VII. Retrieved from United Nations Web Site: http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-vii/index.html
United Nations. (2016, October 5). United Nations Charter: Chapter I. Retrieved from United Nations Web Site: http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-i/index.html
About the author
Joel is an 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.