Brandon Valeriano is a reader at Cardiff University and a fellow at the Niskanen Center, Heather Roff is a research scientist at the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University, and Sean Lawson is an associate professor at the University of Utah.
In February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told NPR that in its fight against the self-described Islamic State, the United States is corrupting command and control networks with “strikes … conducted in a warzone using cyber essentially as a weapon of war. Just like we drop bombs, we’re dropping cyber bombs.” This phrase has since taken on a life of its own, spreading through domestic and international news media over the last several weeks. The India Times even remarked, “there is something called a cyber bomb and the [United States] is preparing to drop it on ISIS.” More recently, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work has also utilized the term, noting “it sucks to be ISIL right now.”
Yet in October 2015, a Forbes editorial used the term as a joke to describe the literal detonation of a bomb when one opens their computer after a jihadi attack, but now cyber bomb is now being used seriously to describe the use of cyber-means during hostilities. The problem is that the United States has no such cyber bomb and hyperbolic rhetoric clouds our understanding of the role that cyber assets can play in conflict.
It is not surprising that the inflammatory rhetoric about cyber bombs is a headline grabber. But one must understand that “cyber” is really a catch all term that combines various types of actions that one can undertake in and through digital information and communication technologies (ICTs). Though the vast majority of malicious cyber activities revolve around crime and espionage, war emerges as a dominant metaphor for thinking about cyber conflict. For example, some likened the Stuxnet malware used against Iranian nuclear facilities to a “cyber missile.” Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear deterrence, and the Cold War are all common sources of analogy and metaphor for thinking about cyber conflict, though such notions are ill-fitting.
Much of this is due to the fact that cyberspace is unlike a battlefield filled with tanks, howitzers, and mortars, but by applying the logic of conventional weapons to describe the use of cyber tactics, policymakers, like Carter and Work, ignore the circumscribed value cyber assets have as coercive tools. They are often limited because many are one-shot weapons: once used, the vulnerabilities and pathways they exploited are closed off. Moreover, they can be blunt force objects that can spread and infect civilian systems, violating humanitarian norms.
Using the term cyber bomb, moreover, has potentially dangerous consequences because it raises unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved through the use of cyber means. One gets sense from recent statements that “cyber bombs” are the wonder weapons that will make all the difference and deliver victory. But this is just as untrue as the equally hyperbolic statements of cyber doom. We ought to be wary of claims that the dropping of a few U.S. cyber bombs will soon lead to the surrender of the Islamic State’s Cyber Caliphate on the deck of a virtual battleship.
Instead we should ground our expectations in empirical knowledge of the often limited and restrained way that actors actually utilize cyber tools. Power is about getting one’s adversary to do something that they would otherwise not do. When it comes to war, we tend to think that threats of lethal force are the best means to get someone to do something, so we use bombs, missiles, bullets and mortars. When used properly, these weapons deny our adversary maneuverability, its ability to fight, and its ability to communicate. Cyber-enabled coercion is just one more tool in the foreign policy toolkit, and so we need to view it in light of its ability to be useful in getting an adversary to change its behavior.
U.S. actions against the Islamic State are a constellation of options and infiltrations, some new and some old, including penetrating enemy communications. The main aims have been disrupting command and control capabilities, limiting communications, and altering or deleting information utilized by the insurgent group. Details are few, but the focus of cyber actions has been on isolation rather than destruction. David Sanger at the New York Times notes the goal is to disrupt the group’s ability to communicate its message, pay its fighters, or communicate with its operatives. One suggestion is that cyber action teams are trying to mimic the Islamic State’s leadership and lead fighters to central locations where they can be physically attacked. It would be better to suggest that cyber actions are able to degrade an adversary’s ability to communicate, coordinate, command, control, finance, or use any weapon that relies on ICTs, rather than suggesting that these actions have major physical destructive effects like conventional weapons.
Ultimately, states have invested massive amounts of money in cyber tools, but these are not sufficient to meet the kind of opposition that the Islamic State brings to the table. Cyber options are adjunct powers, utilized in conjunction with other more traditional forms of coercion. Analogizing cyber operations as a kinetic weapon renders us cognitive misers, cheating our way through a difficult test. It is better to see cyber operations for what they are: changing lines in spreadsheets, intercepting email, jamming communication, and deception. We ought to be careful when talking about cyber bombs because if we really think we are dropping cyber bombs, then these “bombs” are all landing with a resounding thud.