On Point: Cyberwarfare -- the Doctrine of Equivalence

by Austin Bay
May 31, 2011

Hack the United States with a crippling computer virus, andthe Pentagon may respond with smart bombs and commando teams.

The military and intelligence communities have known for atleast two decades that "cyberwar" is war. Everyday experience hasconfirmed that the digital fight is very real, as cyber-attackers probe andoccasionally crack the digital communications and data storage systems ofmilitary organizations, intelligence agencies, financial institutions and,frankly, just about everyone with a networked digital device.

Now the definition of warfare and military doctrine --theory, principles and policies that guide the use of military force -- arecatching up with reality.

According to a Wall Street Journal report this week, thePentagon's new doctrinal term is "equivalence." If a cyberspace basedattack inflicts damage comparable (equivalent) to a conventional attack usingbombs, gunfire or beam weapons, then the cyber-attacker can expect the U.S. toretaliate with a range of weaponry, not just anti-viral software or acyberspace-only counterattack.

Essentially, the U.S. military will no longer treatcyberspace as a semi-mystical gray zone somehow detached from the physicalworld. In 21st century Information Age societies that rely on digital devicesfor an array of critical safety, economic and security services, cyberspaceprovides fundamental connectivity. Fundamental reliance creates fundamentalvulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities require protection.

Determining equivalence relies on judgment, and very likelya judgment made in the midst of a crisis. The odds are, however, likepornography, you and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will know it when you see it --for example, when every computer screen in Washington freezes, geosynchronousmilitary communications satellites suddenly fritz and die, and the entire EastCoast's electrical grid stalls then quits.

Yet simply suggesting a notional Doctrine of Equivalenceserves a valuable purpose: deterrence. The U.S. is indicating that it will notlimit its response to a digital attack to cyberspace. A nation, transnationalterror organization, gang or even an individual engaging in a cyber-attack onU.S. digital assets and capabilities risks physical counterattack -- a fancyway of saying they risk death for wreaking large-scale digital havoc.

For the last decade, defense and intelligence agencies havebeen slowly creeping toward a Doctrine of Equivalence between cyber-attack andkinetic attack. The rub in cyberspace has been twofold: deniability andlethality. Cyberspace is a vast, global jungle providing camouflage for cleversnipers, crooks and armies. Determining where the cyber-shot came from can bedifficult. Attackers can blame other organizations for the assault.

Estonia's cyber-battle with Russia illustrates the problemof deniability. In April and May 2007, Estonia suffered a sophisticated,sustained and coordinated "hack" of the country's digital systems.Estonia claimed that the attacks originated at the Internet addresses of"state agencies in Russia." Russia denied the charge, attributing theattacks to criminal organizations. Were the criminals proxies? Estonia lackedabsolute proof of Russian culpability.

As for lethality, a digital attack doesn't leave shellcraters or bleeding human casualties -- at least, not in the same overt senseof an assault with artillery and bombs. But the contingent lethality of acyber-attack is real; a sustained digital attack erodes defense capabilities.Destroying spy and communications satellites in order to blind and disrupt U.S.command capabilities is a rough equivalent.

Moreover, the economic costs of a digital attack can be muchlarger than a classic barrage or bombing campaign.

The international agreements, customs and understandingsthat attempt to give warfare a legal framework will also adapt to these 21stcentury conditions. Treaties don't bind rogues and fanatics, but perception ofa common threat and common vulnerabilities can bridge differences betweenrational antagonists and competitors.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. is attemptingto reach a consensus position with American allies on how to respond tocyber-attacks, though the U.S. leans toward the position that holding countrieswhich create cyber-weapons responsible for their use serves a deterrentfunction.

As a member of NATO and cyber-attack victim, Estonia will nodoubt forcefully contribute to that discussion.


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