Cyberspace Serves as a Reflective Deterrence Tool

Throughout the Cold War, robust and resilient nuclearforces prevented a nuclear catastrophe. The so-called triad of forces based on land, air and sea ensured neither side could guarantee to eliminate all of their adversary’s nuclear capability in a single strike.

Today that idea lives on in the emerging military capabilities of India and China. Both are developing robust defense approaches in the event of a nuclear exchange. Even North Korea is developing a submarine-based capability to complement any land-based systems it might eventually produce.

But with the advent of what some like to label “cyber warfare,” how this might change approaches to deterrence? Might cyberspace provide a means for de-escalation before any potential future conflict turns into a confrontation like that of the Cuban Missile Crisis? As history shows and more revelations have emerged, mankind came within seconds of calamity as a Soviet submarine commander and his KGB officer argued over whether to launch a nuclear-armed torpedo against Miami.

If cyberspace could be used to add a further ladder in the process of escalation, how might that work? Indeed, in potential future conflicts, what tools might also come into play before the reaching the threshold of a potential nuclear exchange?

This is certainly core to ideas being explored in both the United States and Russia. The idea of a comprehensive approach to deterrence has now gained some traction. The language of a “comprehensive deterrence doctrine” (as it is called in US academic circles) is matched by similar doctrinal writings in Russia. Such a move to consider new dimensions of deterrence is welcome. Cyberspace is clearly an area that may afford some new maneuver room in the case of an emerging crisis.

Cold War Deterrence

During the heady days in the immediate postCold War period, Russia’s deterrence doctrine was based solely on nuclear weapons. Its strategic rocket force was its remaining piece of military capability that underpinned the notion – in some quarters of the Kremlin – that Russia remained a superpower.

As Russia’s military capability gradually reemerged, Moscow argued that tactical nuclear weapons might actually help de-escalate an emerging crisis. Such language created high levels of concern.

While that did not lead, as in the 1980s, to specific calls for re-enforcement of NATO’s military capabilities with all its associated public concerns, NATO was content to use its dwindling stockpile of BL-61 tactical munitions to provide an escalatory response in a European theater had it been required.

Moscow’s doctrine of first use of tactical nuclear weapons also featured in several Russian military exercises. In one case, the capital of Poland was the target of a simulated nuclear strike. The Danish island of Bornholm came under a similar attack in another exercise. Russia, it seemed, remained wedded to the notion of the first use should they be required to deescalate a situation.

For many academics, this notion – even with a limited-yield tactical device – is anathema. Conventional thinking is that as soon as a nuclear strike occurs, it would fundamentally undermine the security situation and shake it to its foundations. All-out nuclear warfare would inevitably follow.

In such a febrile atmosphere, having other tools by which to de-escalate seems entirely logical. Over the years, the mainstream media often completely misrepresent “cyber warfare” as occurring quite frequently. If a website is hacked, they mislabel it as cyber warfare. Similar labels have been given to what are, in fact, acts of cyber espionage, such as when China is accused of stealing US military secrets. Even the nowinfamous Stuxnetattack on Iran was given the dubious title of cyber warfare, when in fact it was an act of industrial sabotage.

Perhaps the closest example of the use of cyberspace for war aims was the Russian attacks on Georgian networks just before war broke out in 2008. The cyber attacks disabled the Georgian government’s ability to communicate with its citizens and operate basic government networks, which allowed Russia to quickly achieve it war aims.

Cyberspace created conditions that inhibited the response without crossing what might have been a more serious rubric: attacking elements of the Georgian utilities networks. It would seem from the Georgian experience that low-level and readily available cyber tools, such as distributed denial-of-service attacks, could help establish conditions for warfare. But can they also deter war?

Read the complete report in the Oct. 2016 issue of Homeland Security Today.

Dr. Dave Sloggett, Contributing Writer, has more than 40 years’ experience analyzing international security issues and supporting law enforcement and military organizations in the United Kingdom and US State Department and Department of Defense. His most recent books are, Focus on the Taliban and Drone Warfare.

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