Cyber Operations In Wartime

Headlines about cyber warfare often focus on doomsday scenarios, with depictions of nation-states using “cyber bombs” to remotely dismantle electric grids and other critical infrastructure

Yet recent events, including Russia’s use of cyber operations for information warfare and propaganda, suggest that policymakers and military leaders need to broaden their assumptions about how state and non-state actors are likely to use such operations in future conflicts. 

To investigate the role of cyber operations in diverse crisis scenarios, the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity  (CLTC) has developed two distinct wargame formats the use  innovative methodology for investigating competition among diverse actors to determine their likely strategic preferences.

Island Impact & Netwar

In the Island Impact game, players represented either the US or China in a simulated crisis in the South China Sea. In Netwar the players took on the role of either a national government or one of three opposition groups (a violent non-state actor, major international firm, or cyber activist network) in the context of an escalating conflict.

  • CLTC first ran these games with university students and national security professionals to examine how the participants approached incorporating cyber capabilities with more conventional tools of statecraft.
  • CLTC then constructed a survey experiment involving more than 3,000 internet users to identify which of the strategies identified in the wargame they preferred.

The wargames and survey experiments both showed that cyber capabilities produce a moderating influence on coercive exchanges and crisis escalation.

Cyber-based instruments of power appear to offer states a means of managing escalation ‘in the shadows’.

Cyber conflict appears in these simulations to resemble covert action and looks more like the ‘political warfare’ of the Cold War than it does a military revolution. The research work suggests that leaders should think about cyber exchanges in crisis settings more as political warfare and subterfuge than as traditional warfighting. 

Among The  CLTC's Key Findings:

Cyber exchanges will not necessarily be escalatory:

Particularly in state-to-state crises, participants were restrained in their use of cyber tools, suggesting that cyber capabilities may not necessarily be a preferred choice for provocative escalations.

Cyber deterrence may be overhyped:

In the context of cyberspace, the logic of coer-cion—the use of threats and limited action to alter behavio is less about deterrence (i.e. the threat of force) than about signaling resolve and undermining adversaries from within.

Power disparities had limited influence on decision-making:

Even players who were more powerful than their opponents used restraint, suggesting that cyber operations may in fact help stabilize strategic interactions between rivals.

Regime type informs cyber strategy preferences: 

Actors took a more defensive posture when the polity they were contesting was a democracy, as opposed to an autocracy.

Cyber strategy is “issue-agnostic”:

The nature of the conflict has little impact on the use of cyber capabilities, as different issues driving conflict, ideology or ethnic minority rights, did not produce observable differences in cyber strategy preferences.

The report, sponsored by the UC Berkeley, gives an overview of the implications for policymakers and military leaders as they make decisions about cybersecurity and anticipate how rivals will use cyber space in future crises linked below. 

Academia. Edu:

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