History records battlefields of every type of geography. From beaches, open plains, to mountains and oceans, there has been no place on the planet where opposing forces have not gone head to head and tried to take the other guy out. But the battlefield of today has evolved, and it’s visible and invisible at the same time.
The cyber domain, the central nervous system of the body of all of our infrastructures and regular lives, has become the domain where nation-states, criminals, military forces, intelligence networks, corporate espionage artists, hackers, and more are marshalling their respective forces to bring down firewalls, steal critical secrets as well as identities; manipulate and take down infrastructures and cause a whole lot more havoc.
None of that is necessarily breaking news, but what is news is the new rhetoric that was unleashed by the Pentagon describing the situation.
In a May 31, 2011, Wall Street Journal article titled, “Cyber Combat: Act of War,” the very first sentence reads, “The Pentagon has concluded that computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force.”
Think about that sentence for a moment. That is a tremendous shift from looking at the constant cyber hacking that happens every nano-second of every day as a nuisance or even troublesome, costly and frustrating exercise, to labeling it as a Pearl Harbor or even 9/11-type of attack.
When you start to throw around volatile terms such as “act of war,” in any type of conversation, chances are you’re going to have people step up and pay attention. You might even compare it to someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. When that happens, you’ve got everyone’s attention; people immediately take you seriously because the shout out is unexpected and even shocking.
While there is no doubt that the Chinese, Russians, and many other nation-state players have for some time been at their keyboards hacking away at our government, military, intelligence, and private-sector networks, labeling those keystrokes as acts of war merits some public debate. There is no doubt as to the seriousness of the various cyber attack breaches. Over the past few years there have been numerous news accounts about hacks into congressional computers, plans for military aircraft, the operations of public utilities, intelligence secrets, and valuable intellectual property, but the term “act of war” could constitute a point of no return.
If our military, intelligence, and government leaders really and truly believe these actions are worthy of war, they may find an already war-weary citizenry looking at them with exhaustion and confusion and saying, “Where? I don’t see any smoke. Or rubble. Or bodies. Where is it?”
With smoke rising from Fort Sumter, Pearl Harbor, and lower Manhattan, it was fairly easy for people to be convinced that the shocking words “act of war” were true and absolute. In this field of battle, though, the smoke may never be visible until after a target has been compromised through the takeover or even destruction of its networks. Communicating those conditions will be one of the toughest challenges for any government, military, or intelligence leader to undertake.
Most people want to see firsthand the reasons and justification for a war in order to wholeheartedly support it. Just saying that there’s a real attack going on isn’t enough to convince many people that true warfare is under way or that it is worthy to counterattack. Therein lies a huge part of the challenge with the change in the terminology that the Pentagon is now using. This is a new battlefield, one that will be unlike any other before.
Like the battles fought on hallowed ground such as Gettysburg, Normandy, and others, this new type of warfare will unleash tremendous evolutions in technology and how it is used. It will also likely unleash a revolution in how everyday people may be engaged in its fights.
The targets that cyber cross-hairs will focus upon will likely not just be military ones, but also the economic ones that power the lives of the people and governments being attacked. Military and intelligence targets are certainly of value, but the quickest way to bring any enemy to its knees is through its wallet – a fact that even bin Laden boasted about a time or two.
Of the many challenges we will encounter in this era, perhaps the most important will be extending the offensive and defensive forces beyond the military and intelligence establishments that every population has looked to as the first and last line of defense. This is a fight that literally has the potential to be waged in every home and every keyboard. The Pentagon’s new use of rhetoric is a profound wake-up call to all of us that the battle is already under way, and we’re all in the trenches this time.