11.22.2008

Forget-Me-Not

A new Congressional report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission outlines the nature and extent of China's space and cyber warfare activities.  The portion on cyber warfare, linked, is especially sobering.

One of more grave aspects of the report is this conclusion about the conundrum faced by any nation targeted by cyber attacks:

Retaliating kinetically may be seen by both the nation against which a retaliatory strike is executed and, importantly, by other nations and multilateral organizations as both unjustified and escalatory. One reason this may be viewed as unjustified is because there is no clear consensus on when a cyber attack constitutes an act of war.

The U.S. needs to develop and propound a legal framework for response to a cyber attack that does not leave us hamstrung at a crucial moment in the face of a threat. Only when a majority of the international community agrees on a basic set of benchmarks of what evidence of cyber attack activities justifies a conventional military response will the U.S. have confidence that its response options are sufficient and justified in the event of a critical cyber attack. Why risk appearing rash if one can avoid it?

While international opprobrium alone should not bar a full U.S. response to a cyber attack, frank discussion of the challenges of this new paradigm of conflict is essential to prepare countries for whatever situations develop down the road. For the U.S. to retain a broad range of action that nonetheless looks legitimate in the eyes of the world, foreign leaders and populations need to be put "on notice," in effect, that unconventional conflict may play out along new trajectories. In the wake of the era of the Bush Doctrine (its definition refined post-Palin), sensitivity to the appearances attending a conventional response to an otherwise intangible cyber attack is crucial to prevent additional hostility to U.S. foreign policy.

In the meantime, the U.S. should beef up its cyber defenses. In my opinion, it should also consider the high stakes parallels of nuclear warfare as it develops appropriate cyber warfare strategies and doctrines. For the stakes are high indeed.