The fight between Russia and the Ukraine over the Crimean Peninsula does not qualify as a “cyber war,” according to a Intel/McAfee cyber-security chief, who warned that exaggeration and propaganda can be as effective in messy wars as tanks, bullets or malware.
“In all today’s conflicts and wars there are cyber elements, and if you want to be a critical player in today’s world politics and in the military battlefield you have to process that as a reality,” according to a March 5 story in The Inquirer quoting Jarno Limnéll, director of Cyber Security at Intel Security. “But the reality of what’s going on over there is not war.”
The Finnish Limnéll hasn’t been with Intel long, and is a couple of subsidiaries removed from its core councils, but is unusually well qualified compared to most IT vendor executives to talk about both real and digital war: he holds a doctorate in military science from Finland’s National Defense University, a Masters in social science, and has a string of scholarly publishing credits to his name as well as experience in big business from a stint as Manager, Defense & Public Safety at Accenture Corp.
Limnéll came to Intel in May 2013 through its subsidiary McAfee, which bought Finnish firewall company StoneSoft where Limnéll was director of Cyber Security.
Cyber war itself is real, and getting more intense, Limnéll wrote in Offensive Cyber Capabilities are Needed Because of Deterrence, the chapter he contributed to The Fog of Cyber Defence (PDF), a collection of scholarly analyses of cyberwar published by the Finnish National Defence University in 2013. His most recent book is “The World and Finland after 9/11.”
In the Crimea, both Russian and Ukranian partisans have launched digital attacks, though most have more to do with the circulation of news or propaganda through social networks and other media than direct attacks. “The digital world has become a domain where strategic advantage can either be lost or won,” he wrote, making it a genuine part of warfare; but digital attacks aren’t sufficiently integrated with the kinetic versions to merge both into one.
For the conflict to develop into a genuine, open cyberwar would require that one or both sides launch attacks against the other’s governments, services, and major pieces of national infrastructure such as electricity or telecommunications networks, he told The Inquirer.
Cyber attacks might be less bloody, but would be no less disruptive or destructive, if they were able to achieve specific military goals such as disabling a particular enemy unit or preventing its reinforcement by damaging support infrastructure. “There probably would be unpredictable side effects in those kind of cyber attacks that we don’t know beforehand what might happen and whoever launched them might shoot themselves in the foot,” he said.
Malware-based sabotage and espionage, accomplished using malware such as Stuxnet, Red October, and the newly discovered Urobouros also don’t quite qualify as cyberwar, Limnéll added.
Those attacks are increasingly serious and effective, and may destabilize the political balance to the point of causing more conflict, but are still missing one major component to qualify as warfare: actual, real-world kinetic death and destruction. “Cyberspace, the fifth dimension of warfare, has already become an important arena of world politics – especially, since the times of war and peace have been blurred and become the grey area we are currently living in,” Limnéll wrote. “Within the next couple of years, the world will experience more intentionally executed and demonstrated cyber attacks. Simultaneously, the development of offensive cyber weapons will become fiercer and publicly more acceptable.”
The ability of modern armies to use digital attacks to obstruct the flow of supplies, confuse the enemy or destroy its command-and-control capabilities, or even turn off its power and leave it in the dark, may eventually become a way to accomplish something critical to winning a battle or a war “without resorting to physical violence,” which 5th Century B.C. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said “is often the most skillful application of the art of war,” Limnéll wrote in a March 2 Intel blog on cyber war for Intel.
So far, at least, Ukraine and the Crimea haven’t reached that point.