Note: I was going to post my reply to Arherring and Rick Wilmes in the comments on my last post. But, it grew into the length of an actual post and has enough substance to warrant a new post, methinks.
After WWI and continuing through WWII, there was a significant effort to remove civilian populations from war–the Geneva Conventions. However, in works like Unrestricted Warfare and in tactics called terrorism civilians are directly targeted and ‘everyday items’ are used as weapons of war. Continuing in this is what we call cyber-warfare. In that, what we’ve become dependent on in everyday life to pay our bills, coordinate our civil infrastructure and make use of in everyday life is now squarely in the crosshairs of our potential and actual enemies. The importance of the internet is on par with the all the other critical infrastructure of a nation.
In cyber-warfare we are growing our capacity to both wage and defend against this type of warfare. But, we have not even started to get close to being able to define where it is that a kinetic, or real world, response is warranted. If a Nation-state purposefully destroyed the Hoover Dam, it would be unequivocal that we would have to respond in kind. However, in a cyber-attack, if the NYSE was taken offline we would 1) struggle to say who was guilty of the attack and 2) struggle to prove the efficacy of a kinetic/real world response to the attack—does utter economic devastation demand a nuclear response? Is a way of life shattered the same no matter if the cause is nuclear or electronic?
We have this ‘gray area’ in our use of force continuum because of the novelty of ‘warfare’ in a completely synthetic domain (online). We do not have thousands of years of experience to fall back on, or to show a precedence to warrant our course of action, or to make the decisions readily understood by the guy on the street. However, to both effectively protect our infrastructure and project force in this domain we have to have a clear ethical and philosophical foundation from which to act. For us to develop this foundation we have to look to outside the DoD and defense industry. We are held to the orders of the National Command Authority and the laws of the United States, it is from there we must understand how to proceed. Yet, all I hear is static on the line from the NCA and our jurisprudence.
The same ambiguity enjoyed online in cyber-warfare is being mimicked in the real world. The sinking of the Cheonan is as ambiguous as many cyber attacks. Terrorist attacks from extra-state actors do not fit neatly into our experience in justifying reasons to go to war. Many commentators online are noticing this, and are justifiably looking for new conceptual constructs through which to understand what we are defending against today. However, I do not agree with creating a new genus of ‘generation’ in defining these threats; in that the end goal of each attack is not novel in the taxonomy war. There are the same end goals (strategy) with only quasi-novel means and domain (tactics and field of battle), not enough to justify a new genus in my mind.
As I said earlier, it is our lack of philosophical and ethical understanding of warfare that is limiting strategic thought. A system cannot be completely proven within itself (Gödel). You must look outside the system to completely verify and understand it. Because of this, the understanding and clarity we need to defend the Nation must come from outside the military. Though to get this understanding we seem to need to ask for it, as no one is rushing to offer us an explanation (I hear McChrystal is headed to Yale…). The need for this understanding is an idea larger than a single Nation-state can decide on its own and demands rigorous philosophical and ethical debate, beyond what we do here online. It will take another effort on par with the Geneva Convention to define what is, and is not a reason to go to war and what warrants a kinetic response from a cyber-attack, as well as the legality of affecting civilians directly or collaterally in cyber-attacks.
Or, should we wait for events on par with the Somme, Pearl Harbor, Dresden and Hiroshima to make us realize that a common understanding of, and limitations to warfare is needed?