Lewis provides a reasonable definition of an act of war and its goals. Cyber-like attacks have been used in warfare. Militaries are familiar with "cyber war in support of a conventional war" (acronym CWSC). In the guise of "electronic warfare," this type of "cyber support operation" has been going on since World War II. However, with the Internet now a major part of the planet's commercial infrastructure, "electronic warfare" has moved to another level. CWSC can now attack strategic targets (e.g., international lending and trading systems), not just the electronic weapons and communications of the combat forces.
Lewis recognizes a non-state actor ("politically motivated group") can wage cyber-war. He also asserts no nation (i.e., a nation-state) has launched a cyber-attack on the U.S., allowing the possibility of attempts to wage cyber-war by terrorists. Lewis argues that no nation-state has waged cyber-war or even launched a cyber-attack "to attain political ends" because the U.S. can trace these attacks to their source.
Guaranteed exposure is a deterrent because the attacker would risk retaliation of some sort -- political, economic, military or, presumably, cyber. I hope he is right, though even the most informed speculations in this field are haunted by the "unknown unknowns" that time and actual warfare inevitably reveal at high cost.
Lewis discusses four types of cyber-threats and warns against conflating them: 1) economic espionage (theft of proprietary business and economic data, and intellectual property); 2) political and military espionage (traditional spying carried into cyberspace); 3) cyber crime (e.g., theft of money from bank accounts); and 4) cyber war. In Lewis' view, cyber-attacks in cyber-war are "just another weapons system" for hitting targets.
The categories suggest structural responses. Police, trade and legal institutions, linked to international agreements, become the mechanisms for addressing economic espionage and cyber-crime. Defense and diplomatic organizations address cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare. Lewis advocates creating international "norms" and understandings for what constitutes an attack, and "an international framework" to establish "potential consequences for differing levels of hostile action."
However, determining levels of hostility as a crisis emerges and escalates is a very stiff requirement. History is riddled with surprise attacks whose devastating effects took time to assess. The categories are really not so discrete.
In "real space" crime and terror, and crime and rebellion all too easily mesh. Separating criminal from rebel is often a tough judgment call. In my own view, skirmishing is warfare. In cyber-space we are witnessing the potshots by light cavalry prior to a larger clash, where opponents, at a calculated pace, probe for vulnerabilities and seek decisive advantage.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
Be the first to read Austin Bay's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.
Former Head of Marine Corps: Obama's ISIS Strategy Doesn't Have a Snowball's Chance in Hell | Katie Pavlich