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FP: Think Again: Cyberwar

March/April 2012

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Foreign Policy's Thomas Rid writes that we shouldn't fear the digital bogeyman--virtual conflict is still more hype than reality.

No way. "Cyberwar is coming!" John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt predicted in a celebrated Rand paper back in 1993. Since then, it seems to have arrived -- at least by the account of the U.S. military establishment, which is busy competing over who should get what share of the fight. Cyberspace is "a domain in which the Air Force flies and fights," Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne claimed in 2006. By 2012, William J. Lynn III, the deputy defense secretary at the time, was writing that cyberwar is "just as critical to military operations as land, sea, air, and space." In January, the Defense Department vowed to equip the U.S. armed forces for "conducting a combined arms campaign across all domains -- land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace." Meanwhile, growing piles of books and articles explore the threats of cyberwarfare, cyberterrorism, and how to survive them.

Time for a reality check: Cyberwar is still more hype than hazard. Consider the definition of an act of war: It has to be potentially violent, it has to be purposeful, and it has to be political. The cyberattacks we've seen so far, from Estonia to the Stuxnet virus, simply don't meet these criteria.

Take the dubious story of a Soviet pipeline explosion back in 1982, much cited by cyberwar's true believers as the most destructive cyberattack ever. The account goes like this: In June 1982, a Siberian pipeline that the CIA had virtually booby-trapped with a so-called "logic bomb" exploded in a monumental fireball that could be seen from space. The U.S. Air Force estimated the explosion at 3 kilotons, equivalent to a small nuclear device. Targeting a Soviet pipeline linking gas fields in Siberia to European markets, the operation sabotaged the pipeline's control systems with software from a Canadian firm that the CIA had doctored with malicious code. No one died, according to Thomas Reed, a U.S. National Security Council aide at the time who revealed the incident in his 2004 book, At the Abyss; the only harm came to the Soviet economy.

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