The military and intelligence communities have known for at least two decades that "cyberwar" is war. Everyday experience has confirmed that the digital fight is very real, as cyber-attackers probe and occasionally crack the digital communications and data storage systems of military organizations, intelligence agencies, financial institutions and, frankly, just about everyone with a networked digital device.
Now the definition of warfare and military doctrine -- theory, principles and policies that guide the use of military force -- are catching up with reality.
According to a Wall Street Journal report this week, the Pentagon's new doctrinal term is "equivalence." If a cyberspace based attack inflicts damage comparable (equivalent) to a conventional attack using bombs, gunfire or beam weapons, then the cyber-attacker can expect the U.S. to retaliate with a range of weaponry, not just anti-viral software or a cyberspace-only counterattack.
Essentially, the U.S. military will no longer treat cyberspace as a semi-mystical gray zone somehow detached from the physical world. In 21st century Information Age societies that rely on digital devices for an array of critical safety, economic and security services, cyberspace provides fundamental connectivity. Fundamental reliance creates fundamental vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities require protection.
Determining equivalence relies on judgment, and very likely a judgment made in the midst of a crisis. The odds are, however, like pornography, you and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will know it when you see it -- for example, when every computer screen in Washington freezes, geosynchronous military communications satellites suddenly fritz and die, and the entire East Coast's electrical grid stalls then quits.
Yet simply suggesting a notional Doctrine of Equivalence serves a valuable purpose: deterrence. The U.S. is indicating that it will not limit its response to a digital attack to cyberspace. A nation, transnational terror organization, gang or even an individual engaging in a cyber-attack on U.S. digital assets and capabilities risks physical counterattack -- a fancy way of saying they risk death for wreaking large-scale digital havoc.
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).
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