Hacking wireless

War: a continuation of policy by other technologies?

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A 19th-century Prussian officer can help us understand the future of warfare.

June 13th 2021, Carbis Bay, Cornwall: G7 Leaders demand that the Russian government takes action against people conducting cyber-attacks against western interests from within its borders. Moscow must stop its ‘destabilising behaviour and malign activities’, the joint missive reads.

The following day the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announces that Nato should adapt and evolve to meet new challenges and emerging threats. The new Atlantic Charter that Johnson and President Biden signed at G7 refers to cyber attacks as one such threat.

It’s nothing new for national leaders to pursue policies that lead them into conflicts with other national leaders. Or for those leaders and their representatives to publicly accuse rivals of wrongdoing and make retaliatory threats.

In the past, though, we’ve always been told that certain nations and groups need to be opposed because they might use soldiers, missiles and warships to attack us. Now, it seems that our worst enemies are those using computers, hacking technology and malware.

The latest round of conflict between Russia and the West has been brewing for a while. Two weeks before G7, a White House press briefing suggested that President Biden hadn’t ruled out taking retaliatory action against Russia, for alleged state-sponsored cyber attacks on US industry.

This came after hackers (apparently based in Russia) got into the computer networks of meat packing firm JBS, and Colonial Pipeline, which supplies gasoline from Texas to New Jersey. The hackers threatened to cause disruption or delete files unless a ransom in cryptocurrency was paid. JBS subsequently paid out $11m to protect its systems, Colonial $4.4m.

President Putin has denied all such criticisms of his government, calling Western accusations ridiculous and absurd. Russian officials have also accused the USA of interfering in governmental processes around the world and carrying out cyber attacks in Russia and Iran.

The Chinese government issued similar denials, after accusations (made by US researchers in March) that Chinese hackers had been involved in carrying out cyber attacks against India. In 2020, accusations had been levelled at China for attacking Moderna, Equifax and a whole host of companies in the UK. On 14 July this year, MI5 chief Ken McCallum named China, along with Russia and Iran, as the predominant states behind the threats his organisation deals with day-to-day. McCallum believes that the actions of hostile states could in the immediate future have as much impact on the public as terrorism.

As the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, it seems as if nations are arming themselves for a new round of international conflict. But what will this conflict look like? Do we need to rush out to buy tin hats and dig tunnels under our houses? Or would we be better advised to upgrade the spyware on our computers and mobile devices?

For obvious reasons, governments and military leaders prefer spin and secrecy to disclosure when talking about their plans. So, in trying to work out what the immediate future might hold, all we can really hope to do is ask the right questions. Luckily, there’s a philosopher of war who fought against Napoleon, who can help us work out what those questions might be.

‘Why send a squadron of bombers to destroy an enemy’s dam when a cyber attack can disable it?’

Carl von Clausewitz’s ‘On War’ was published unfinished in 1832, the year after he died, by his wife Marie. Based on the Prussian officer’s experiences and observations gained on the early 19th-century battlefield, the book has subsequently been used to train military commanders the world over.

The author’s actual intent, though, was to help people understand the nature of warfare; Clausewitz saw war as an extreme form of human interaction. From this viewpoint, he uncovered essential processes as applicable to today’s international conflicts as they were in Napoleonic times.

For Clausewitz, war was a deliberate act of policy, instigated by national leaders and designed to achieve a specific objective, as opposed to a natural state of affairs between rival nations, as previously believed. It involved using force to compel a rival to do as the policymaker wished. “War is a continuation of policy by other means,” Clausewitz most famously wrote.

Clausewitz also held the view that war in a particular time period could only be properly understood within its wider political, economic and cultural context.  “He realised that while the essential nature of warfare stayed the same, the character of a particular war is based on the age it takes place in,” says Dick Crowell, an expert in information and cyberspace operations from the Joint Military Operations Department of the US Naval War College. “So for Clausewitz that was the early industrial age, for us it’s the information age.”

Not long after his inauguration in January, President Biden let it be known that he intends for the US to renew its role as a global leader after the isolationist Trump years.

The same month, the Johnson government announced a £16.5bn increase in UK defence spending over the next four years, also stating an intent that Britain should use foreign policy to defend free and open societies, which of course, also contain free and open markets for British and US investment. The Johnson government also plans to invest £22m into developing cyber-security resilience in the G77 group of developing countries, particularly in Africa and the Indo-Pacific and boost alliances with India, Japan and Australia.

In unveiling the UK government’s Defence Command Paper in March, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace spoke of a new competitive age in which security threats must be deterred at source by a strong military force that is active around the world.  The paper itself highlighted Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as threats, but also smaller states and non-state actors that might wish to use force to pursue their own agendas.

For Clausewitz, policy dictated strategy, strategy being a set of choices about how best to use limited resources to achieve competitive advantage.

Engaging in cyber warfare makes it less risky for nations to attack each other, if risk is counted in terms of loss of life and physical damage to buildings and infrastructure, that is. “It’s the cheapest and easiest form of warfare ever,” says Professor Steve Andriole, an expert in business technology from Villanova University in the USA.

This is a new take on an old Clausewitzian concept. Clausewitz believed that to win a war, maximum force must be applied to the enemy’s centre of gravity. In Napoleonic times, this was the army in the field. Once defeated, the enemy would be unable to defend its borders, which meant a ruling group or…

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