Cyberspace – the next battlefield

5 11 2011

America intervened in Libya on March 19,2011 as part of the NATO led coalition to save the lives of thousands of people.  The first line of attack in the intervention could have been a computer worm as opposed to the cruise missiles that were actually fired. After intense deliberations the US government dropped the plans to use Cyberwarfare to disrupt the Libyan governments air defense system[1]. One of the main reasons was that the US government was worried that this would set a wrong precedent for other countries like Russia and China. But the fact that this was discussed in length for such a high profile intervention shows that Cyberwarfare is here to stay.

Cyberwarfare is defined as the “actions taken by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption”[2]. It has grown in prominence in the last few years though none of the governments admit it adopting it publicly. It has been reported that Pentagon and other military contractors frequently repel attacks on their systems emanating from Chinese and Russian government. The American government has also been alleged to have carried out an Cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear systems using Stuxnet computer worm that has apparently delayed Iran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel.

Cyberwarfare can be carried out thorough many different modes. A very common mode of attack has been to send phishing emails tainted with malicious software to specific people in vital organizations like military.  Once these people click on the infected link, the intruder gains control of the particular machine and infiltrate the organizations other computers. Cyberwarfare targets include government infrastructure, databases, networks and any other communication systems.

Cyberwarfare can be launched without executing a physical attack. Thus the material loss to the attacking country is minimal. For example, if a country’s ‘command and control’ system is attacked and disabled without using riskier tactics like bombing, the country could be defeated, if not at least crippled through cyber attacks.

Cyberwarfare also has some limitations. Unlike a traditional war it cannot be launched immediately and this was another reason the US government didn’t adopt this tactic during the Libyan intervention. It requires significant digital snooping to identify potential entry points. According to James Andrew Lewis[3], “It’s the cyberequivalent of fumbling around in the dark until you find the doorknob” [4].

In Sum, Cyberspace has the potential to be the battlefield where the next big war is fought.


[2] Clarke, Richard A. Cyber War, HarperCollins (2010)

[3] James Andrew Lewis is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies where he specializes in technology and national security.

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