As technology continues to advance, the rise of cyber warfare in political and military agendas is quickly altering our perspective of traditional battlegrounds. While cyber operations are not new, with the first combat unit formed by the Air Force in 1995, foreign assaults on classified intelligence networks and intellectual property continue to escalate in frequency and intensity, threatening the possibility of a full-scale cyber war.
This is particularly worrying because the rules of engagement in the cyber domain are still poorly defined. Traditional forms of war have established international laws, such as the Geneva Convention, to protect those caught in the crossfire. However, with cyberconflicts, it is challenging and at times nearly impossible to attribute the attack to certain users or states due to complex cyberweapons and the vast, global realm of the Internet. Despite efforts to regulate cyberspace conflicts, such as the Digital Geneva Convention Initiative, the Tallinn Manual by NATO, and the UN Governmental Group of Experts’ confirmation that existing international law applies to cyberspace, there has been little work to actually implement regulatory and protectionary measures.
Russia and China have emerged as notable international players who employ cyber attacks as part of their hybrid warfare strategies. Hybrid warfare is a combination of conventional and unconventional tools of power, such as foreign electoral intervention, to exploit the vulnerabilities of a target in a way that traditional warfare cannot. The elusive nature of such warfare has become a key asset of many nations’ military strategies, notably Russia’s and China’s. While the concept of hybrid warfare is not new, it has gained considerable attention in the contemporary era due to modern military advancements in technology and warfare strategies. Hybrid warfare employs kinetic and non-kinetic operations to inflict damage, with the intention of exploiting political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (PMESII) vulnerabilities of the targeted state. By rendering those realms insufficient to properly support society, the social contract between state and its people is eroded in a way that tears away at the state’s legitimacy and public trust. Hybrid attacks are characterized by ambiguity and elusiveness, as war becomes difficult to operationalize and attribute to. Obscurity is a deliberate tactic that makes it difficult to detect upcoming attacks or identify actors, thus generating challenges for developing policy and strategic responses. In the contemporary era, hybrid warfare is accelerated through advancements in technology. Tactics such as disinformation greatly reduce kinetic costs and risks associated with traditional war but invoke lasting damages that tackle a state’s foundational structures and public trust. In addition, hybrid warfare may even enhance kinetic capabilities as actors can displace accountability of kinetic actions by leveraging disinformation, allowing them to increase the scale and intensity of such attacks.
As hybrid warfare becomes a key to military operations, inter-state conflicts without physical combat are on the horizon, as seen by the rise in cyberspace operations. While there has yet to be an integrated offensive military invasion where cyberspace operations play the foremost central role, Russia and China may soon make that a reality with their significant developments and investments in weaponized technology.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine was a major development that propelled hybrid warfare and cyberspace concerns to the foreground of the foreign policy world. Leveraging the information environment was a notable feature of the Russian strategy, combining traditional combat operations with unconventional methods including backing political protests, economic coercion, and disinformation campaigns. The usage of cyber tools greatly enhanced Russian disinformation that sought to alter public perception of current events, as if presenting an alternative reality in which the line between truth and disinformation was blurred beyond recognition. With destabilized state institutions and declining state legitimacy as a result of cyber tactics, combat forces played a supporting role in coercion and intimidation, ensuring the physical takeover of Crimea. Russia further demonstrated its cyber capabilities in its conflict with Ukraine, with hackers planting malware in government systems and disabling government websites earlier this February. The implications of these instances is the extensive power Russia has over a government, people, and national stability, in the case of a full-scale cyber assault. As demonstrated by its campaign in Crimea, Russia already possesses the ability to shut down communication systems and power grids to fuel a disinformation campaign that could critically destabilize state leadership, especially if public trust in the targeted government is at a crucial tipping point. The U.S. is not stranger to Russian cyberattacks either, with instances of cyberattacks that target critical sectors and interference in the 2016 presidential election, Solar Winds, and the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack. However, it is to be noted that what we see in Ukraine is only one step away from the Kremlin unleashing its full force upon the U.S., if Putin were to retaliate against Biden for any sanctions imposed.
The eventual failure of the 2015 pledge between President Obama and President Xi to curb cyber-related economic espionage reflects Washington’s separation of private and public sectors regarding national cybersecurity measures. China’s aggressive cyber-espionage have actively targeted sectors that Beijing has particular interest in, for its economic and national security agenda of surpassing the U.S. as the world’s leading economic and military superpower. Stolen intellectual property has already been used in upgrades of military equipment, such as jets, and technology as China seeks to incorporate AI into its military agenda. The CCP has also adopted Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) as a national strategy, fully enforceable by Chinese national law, to develop the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world class military” by 2049. Under MCF, the CCP has been systematically eliminating barriers between China’s civilian research and commercial sectors, and its military and defense industrial sectors. To aid this process, the CCP has also been acquiring and diverting foreign technologies, including through theft, to cement the PLA’s rise to global military domination. President Xi has decreed technological innovation as a priority for China, elevating MCF to a national strategy in 2014 and putting himself in charge of the Central Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development.
The U.S.’ long battle of cyber warfare, especially with Russia and China, can be the nation’s more recent involvement in cyber operations and the Department of Defense (DoD) heavy reliance on contracted commercial assets which undermines national security. Several critical DoD functions and operations use commercial assets such as Internet service providers and global supply chains, meaning that the DOD has no direct authority over its commercial partners. Thus, the success of DOD initiatives is also dependent on the private sector’s development and implementation of information protection measures. Considering their major contribution to DOD missions and advancement, the centralization of the defense industrial base (DIB) and private sectors may not be necessary. Rather, the U.S. needs to strengthen public-private sector cooperation and enforce standardized cybersecurity and information protection measures. Federal funding should be used to incentive private sector defense mechanisms to widely strengthen agility and resilience, protecting America’s crucial sectors. The global nature of DOD operations also means that confidential information, critical technology, and services come from foreign providers, raising the risk of a security breach. While it is not feasible to entirely eliminate the U.S. reliance on foreign service providers, the U.S. needs to continue pursuing risk mitigation as a key strategy to ensure the protection of American technology infrastructure. Though complex, risk mitigation is particularly important in the cyber realm as organizations of all sizes are prone to crippling attacks that evolve alongside cybersecurity measures. Risk mitigation includes standardized cybersecurity training at all levels, encryption, and the inspection of vendor-provided equipment in accordance with DOD IT procurement policies that ensure the American public and private sectors are equally protected. In response to regulating Russia and China’s cyberweaponry, the U.S. should advocate for the establishment of an international body specific for cyber crime and terrorism. Similar to the Stanford Draft Convention on Protection from Cyber Crime and Terrorism, an international agreement drafted by non-state actors, there should be an intergovernmental regulatory body to avoid coordination problems between foreign governments about cyberweapon usage.
The advancement of technology is beautiful, yet deadly. As demonstrated by Russia and China’s heavy utilization of cyber warfare in their military strategies, it must be recognized that future battlegrounds will be much different from what we have witnessed. Indeed, this is already apparent in Russia’s attacks on Ukraine and China’s AI military. Unfortunately, how exactly the U.S. should respond to cyber warfare is still in the air and much surrounding the DOD’s private sector and global industry reliances needs to be considered. Regardless, Washington needs to be on guard and rise to these new threats by investing heavily in updating crucial technology infrastructures and developing a concrete hybrid warfare strategy reflective of new technological advancements. Failure to adapt to a rapidly changing and digital world may just see America topple from its throne as the world’s most formidable military superpower.