Friday, June 1, 2012

Riddle Me This: What Counts as War?

Yesterday's NYT had a big story about drones being used all over the place by the US.  Today's has a story about the cyberwar the US has been engaged in against Iran.  I am more focused on the latter today: given that the US has been pushing for NATO to consider a cyber-attack as an act of war that would activate Article V's attack upon one is equal to attack upon all commitment, these attacks upon Iran are pretty, well, war-like. 

So, my question is: is this a new war that the US is fighting against Iran? Or is it an on-going war that is being fought by alternative means?  Iran has reputedly been supporting terrorism against the US since, well, the revolution.  Its support of the taking of hostages at the embassy made that event more of an inter-country thing than a random act by a few students.  Iran apparently supported the groups behind terrorist attacks against the US Marines and French in Lebanon in 1983 and then other attacks as far away as Argentine.  Perhaps those efforts might be too distant from Iran, but Iran's provision of the most advanced roadside bomb materials for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan is much more direct and clear.

I am actually less worried about antagonizing Iran since the Iranian actors (elements of the government or the entire enchilada) seem to have no qualms given what they did to assist the insurgents in I/A, and more worried about the computer viruses spilling over and increasing the expertise of the folks who are now seeing the start of the art. 

But there is this larger question about what counts as war.  The usual dataset question relies on body-counts, but cyberwarfare kills centrifuges and other equipment, not people thus far.  Is it a matter of scale, like body counts?  That specialized, focused efforts do not cross the threshold, such as attacks on nuclear programs, but a cyber attack that wiped out the electricity production of a swath of a country would? 

I am sure scholars of cyber-stuff have asked these questions.  This is way outside my expertise, but I am curious.  What say you?


Anonymous said...

I don't know about causing deaths (though wiping out regional power grids is apparently a very real possibility), but so far state-sponsored cyberweaponry seems to be focused on being a compliment to traditional warfighting (knocking out enemy IT; countering network-centric tech.) That still gives it a significant, if indirect role, in the overall picture of war, and we're talking about a dimension that changes dramatically in a very short span of time.

Worst part is that no one really knows how to deal with it. Literature is ambiguous, but most seem to believe that our tried-and-true deterrence theory needs, at best, significant revisions for cyberwarfare and at worst, a replacement.

Susan Watson said...

I think timing matters. If there is no explicit war declared at the time, then "state-sponsored cyberweaponry" is not really "focused on being a compliment to traditional warfighting ".
Other than frank malice, why do it?

Anonymous said...

Well, yes, because "traditional warfighting" usually takes place during wars...