NEWS | Nov. 29, 2012

Why Your Intuition About Cyber Warfare is Probably Wrong

By Capt. Matthew Miller, Col. Jon Brickey, and Col. Gregory Conti

Since the dawn of time, when one caveman first struck another, humans have relied on a natural understanding of their physical environment to conduct warfare.  We have an inborn ability to understand the laws of the physical world.  In order to shoot an artillery round farther, just add more powder; to provide cover for protection against bullets, hide behind a rock.  A private might accidentally shoot the wrong target, but the potential damage is limited by the maximum range of his or her rifle.  The laws of physics, however, are counterintuitive in cyberspace.  In cyberspace, our understanding of the “laws of physics” is turned on its head.  Weapons can be reproduced instantly, “bullets” travel at near the speed of light, destroyed targets can be brought back from the dead, and a seventeen year old can command an army.  As human beings we are at a distinct disadvantage when thinking intuitively about cyber warfare.  In this article we study where our intuition fails us in cyber warfare and suggest alternate ways to think about the conduct of cyber war that account for the vast differences between the kinetic and the non-kinetic fight.  A correct understanding and appreciation of these differences and common misconceptions is absolutely necessary to conduct cyber warfare and to integrate cyber effects into the kinetic battlefield.  To ground this work we need to define the term “cyber.”  There is significant and evolving debate regarding the precise definition of cyber. For purposes of this article we define cyber as a spectrum of cyberspace operations including Computer Network Attack (CNA), Computer Network Exploitation (CNE), and Computer Network Defense (CND).