For the last decade, defense and intelligence agencies have been slowly creeping toward a Doctrine of Equivalence between cyber-attack and kinetic attack. The rub in cyberspace has been twofold: deniability and lethality. Cyberspace is a vast, global jungle providing camouflage for clever snipers, crooks and armies. Determining where the cybershot came from can be difficult. Attackers can blame other organizations for the assault.
Estonia's cyberbattle with Russia illustrates the problem of deniability. In April and May 2007, Estonia suffered a sophisticated, sustained and coordinated "hack" of the country's digital systems. Estonia claimed that the attacks originated at the Internet addresses of "state agencies in Russia." Russia denied the charge, attributing the attacks to criminal organizations. Were the criminals proxies? Estonia lacked absolute proof of Russian culpability.
As for lethality, a digital attack doesn't leave shell craters or bleeding human casualties -- at least, not in the same overt sense of an assault with artillery and bombs. But the contingent lethality of a cyber-attack is real; a sustained digital attack erodes defense capabilities. Destroying spy and communications satellites in order to blind and disrupt U.S. command capabilities is a rough equivalent.
Moreover, the economic costs of a digital attack can be much larger than a classic barrage or bombing campaign.
The international agreements, customs and understandings that attempt to give warfare a legal framework will also adapt to these 21st century conditions. Treaties don't bind rogues and fanatics, but perception of a common threat and common vulnerabilities can bridge differences between rational antagonists and competitors.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. is attempting to reach a consensus position with American allies on how to respond to cyber-attacks, though the U.S. leans toward the position that holding countries which create cyberweapons responsible for their use serves a deterrent function.
As a member of NATO and cyber-attack victim, Estonia will no doubt forcefully contribute to that discussion.
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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