By Joseph S. Nye

Two years ago, a piece of faulty computer code infected Iran’s nuclear program and destroyed many of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Some observers declared this apparent sabotage to be the harbinger of a new form of warfare, and United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned Americans of the danger of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” attack on the US. But what do we really know about cyber conflict?

The cyber domain of computers and related electronic activities is a complex man-made environment, and human adversaries are purposeful and intelligent. Mountains and oceans are hard to move, but portions of cyberspace can be turned on and off by throwing a switch. It is far cheaper and quicker to move electrons across the globe than to move large ships long distances.

The costs of developing those vessels – multiple carrier task forces and submarine fleets – create enormous barriers to entry, enabling US naval dominance. But the barriers to entry in the cyber domain are so low that non-state actors and small states can play a significant role at low cost.

In my book The Future of Power, I argue that the diffusion of power away from governments is one of this century’s great political shifts. & Cyberspace is a perfect example. Large countries like the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China have greater capacity than other states and non-state actors to control the sea, air, or space, but it makes little sense to speak of dominance in cyberspace. If anything, dependence on complex cyber systems for support of military and economic activities creates new vulnerabilities in large states that can be exploited by non-state actors.

Four decades ago, the US Department of Defense created the Internet; today, by most accounts, the US remains the leading country in terms of its military and societal use. But greater dependence on networked computers and communication leaves the US more vulnerable to attack than many other countries, and cyberspace has become a major source of insecurity, because, at this stage of technological development, offense prevails over defense there.

The term “cyber attack”covers a wide variety of actions, ranging from simple probes to defacing Web sites, denial of service, espionage, and destruction. Similarly, the term “cyber war” is used loosely to cover a wide range of behaviors, reflecting dictionary definitions of war that range from armed conflict to any hostile contest (for example, “war between the sexes” or “war on drugs”).

At the other extreme, some experts use a narrow definition of cyber war: a “bloodless war” among states that consists solely of electronic conflict in cyberspace. But this avoids the important interconnections between the physical and virtual layers of cyberspace. As the Stuxnet virus that infected Iran’s nuclear program showed, software attacks can have very real physical effects. Read more…

Joseph S. Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is a professor at Harvard University and one of the world’s foremost scholars of international relations.

As published in www.project-syndicate.org on April 10, 2012.


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