19 September 2018

Assessment of the Role of Cyber Power in Interstate Conflict

By Eric Altamura

Eric Altamura is a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He previously served for four years on active duty as an armor officer in the United States Army. He regularly writes for Georgetown Security Studies Review and can be found on Twitter @eric_senlu. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title: Assessment of the Role of Cyber Power in Interstate Conflict

Summary: The targeting of computer networks and digitized information during war can prevent escalation by providing an alternative means for states to create the strategic effects necessary to accomplish limited objectives, thereby bolstering the political viability of the use of force as a lever of state power.

Text: Prussian General and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that in reality, one uses, “no greater force, and setting himself no greater military aim, than would be sufficient for the achievement of his political purpose.” State actors, thus far, have opted to limit cyberattacks in size and scope pursuant to specific political objectives when choosing to target information for accomplishing desired outcomes. This limiting occurs because as warfare approaches its unlimited form in cyberspace, computer network attacks increasingly affect the physical domain in areas where societies have become reliant upon IT systems for everyday functions. Many government and corporate network servers host data from industrial control systems (ICS) or supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that control power generation, utilities, and virtually all other public services. Broader attacks on an adversary’s networks consequently affect the populations supported by these systems, so that the impacts of an attack go beyond simply denying an opponent the ability to communicate through digital networks.

At some point, a threshold exists where it becomes more practical for states to utilize other means to directly target the physical assets of an adversary rather than through information systems. Unlimited cyberattacks on infrastructure would come close to replicating warfare in its total form, with the goal of fully disarming an opponent of its means to generate resistance, so states become more willing to expend resources and effort towards accomplishing their objectives. In this case, cyber power decreases in utility relative to the use of physical munitions (i.e. bullets and bombs) as the scale of warfare increases, mainly due to the lower probability of producing enduring effects in cyberspace. As such, the targeting and attacking of an opponent’s digital communication networks tends to occur in a more limited fashion because alternative levers of state power provide more reliable solutions as warfare nears its absolute form. In other words, cyberspace offers much more value to states seeking to accomplish limited political objectives, rather than for waging total war against an adversary.

To understand how actors attack computer systems and networks to accomplish limited objectives during war, one must first identify what states actually seek to accomplish in cyberspace. Just as the prominent British naval historian Julian Corbett explains that command of the sea does not entail “the conquest of water territory,” states do not use information technology for the purpose of conquering the computer systems and supporting infrastructure that comprise an adversary’s information network. Furthermore, cyberattacks do not occur in isolation from the broader context of war, nor do they need to result in the total destruction of the enemy’s capabilities to successfully accomplish political objectives. Rather, the tactical objective in any environment is to exploit the activity that takes place within it – in this case, the communication of information across a series of interconnected digital networks – in a way that provides a relative advantage in war. Once the enemy’s communication of information is exploited, and an advantage achieved, states can then use force to accomplish otherwise unattainable political objectives.

Achieving such an advantage requires targeting the key functions and assets in cyberspace that enable states to accomplish political objectives. Italian General Giulio Douhet, an airpower theorist, describes command of the air as, “the ability to fly against an enemy so as to injure him, while he has been deprived of the power to do likewise.” Whereas airpower theorists propose targeting airfields alongside destroying airplanes as ways to deny an adversary access to the air, a similar concept prevails with cyber power. To deny an opponent the ability to utilize cyberspace for its own purposes, states can either attack information directly or target the means by which the enemy communicates its information. Once an actor achieves uncontested use of cyberspace, it can subsequently control or manipulate information for its own limited purposes, particularly by preventing the escalation of war toward its total form.

More specifically, the ability to communicate information while preventing an adversary from doing so has a limiting effect on warfare for three reasons. Primarily, access to information through networked communications systems provides a decisive advantage to military forces by allowing for “analyses and synthesis across a variety of domains” that enables rapid and informed decision-making at all echelons. The greater a decision advantage one military force has over another, the less costly military action becomes. Secondly, the ubiquity of networked information technologies creates an alternative way for actors to affect targets that would otherwise be politically, geographically, or normatively infeasible to target with physical munitions. Finally, actors can mask their activities in cyberspace, which makes attribution difficult. This added layer of ambiguity enables face-saving measures by opponents, who can opt to not respond to attacks overtly without necessarily appearing weak.

In essence, cyber power has become particularly useful for states as a tool for preventing conflict escalation, as an opponent’s ability to respond to attacks becomes constrained when denied access to communication networks. Societies’ dependence on information technology and resulting vulnerability to computer network attacks continues to increase, indicating that interstate violence may become much more prevalent in the near term if aggressors can use cyberattacks to decrease the likelihood of escalation by an adversary.


[1] von Clausewitz, C. (1976). On War. (M. Howard, & P. Paret, Trans.) Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team. (2018, March 15). Russian Government Cyber Activity Targeting Energy and Other Critical Infrastructure Sectors. (United States Department of Homeland Security) Retrieved May 1, 2018, from https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/TA18-074A

[3] Fischer, E. A. (2016, August 12). Cybersecurity Issues and Challenges: In Brief. Retrieved May 1, 2018, from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43831.pdf

[4] Corbett, J. S. (2005, February 16). Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. (S. Shell, & K. Edkins, Eds.) Retrieved May 2, 2018, from The Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15076

[5] Ibid.

[6] Douhet, G. (1942). The Command of the Air. (D. Ferrari, Trans.) New York: Coward-McCann.

[7] Singer, P. W., & Friedman, A. (2014). Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] Boyd, J. R. (2010, August). The Essence of Winning and Losing. (C. Richards, & C. Spinney, Eds.) Atlanta.

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