Is this how World War III begins?

In October, Facebook and its related social media platforms went down under mysterious circumstances for six hours. On the same day, China sent 52 military planes to Taiwan’s air defense zone, the largest and most provocative incursion to date. If military theorists are right, titles like these will be the forerunner of World War III.

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is a scenario many fear will become the catalyst for the next great international war. And most experts believe that cyber warfare will play a major role in such a conflict, if not in any future international war. So a cyberattack that knocks out the US media to hide or distract from Chinese action against Taiwan is not unrealistic.

To be clear, there is no indication that the Facebook outage and the Chinese incursion were linked. But it’s a timely reminder of how vulnerable our networked world is to cyberattacks. What role would cyberwarfare play in a future conflict, and is it as important as traditional “kinetic” military operations?

Cyber ​​warfare can play a role in three ways: as an alternative, as an openness strategy, or alongside kinetic operations.

Some believe that the emerging theater of cyberwarfare will completely replace traditional military operations, if not that it has already happened. This may be true, but if it is, there is not much to worry about. Shutting down Facebook, shutting down an oil pipeline, or interfering with the operations of a power plant, airport, bank, or factory are all disruptive and costly. But the damage is temporary, and the world is moving forward. Cybercrime is part of the background of a modern economy, whether instigated by isolated hackers, organized crime groups or state actors. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cost any money.

Defending itself and dealing with cyber attacks weigh on economic growth, but modern nation states are strong and resilient institutions. If cyber operations are the only plan a nation adopts to defeat an enemy, it would take a long time and certainly involve a reciprocal action against the initiating party which could be just as damaging. If this is what World War III will be, we can rest relatively easily at night.

Of course, a very effective cyber attack can shut down an entire country for a period of time. Imagine the disruption of a modern developed economy if it lost electricity, communications and internet access all at the same time and went on for months. But such an attack would be so devastating that the victim would likely feel that a line has been crossed and that it is an overt act of war. Retaliation would likely not be confined to cyberspace.

Cyber ​​operations could facilitate kinetic operations (like an invasion of Taiwan, for example) by disrupting the other party’s communications so that its military hardware was temporarily powerless to respond. Modern military forces are blind without radar and satellite imagery, deaf without the Internet, and dumb without secure telecommunications systems. In a short war, that might be all that is needed. If Taiwan were temporarily blinded by a cyber attack, within a month the country could be invaded, without the Taiwanese having the right to shoot.

But in a longer war, any advantage of throwing the first cyber punch will be temporary. Systems will inevitably be restored or workarounds found. A ship at sea can fire its cannons and missiles without a satellite. Tank crews and ground troops were perfectly capable of raining death on their enemies before the Internet. During World War II, Germany delivered a devastating first blow to the Soviet Union in June 1941 when it launched a surprise attack – Operation Barbarossa – which surprised the Soviet Air Force. on the ground and his troops unawares. Japan also managed to wipe out much of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in a surprise raid. These early successes did not bring Axis victory. The Allies’ greater resources allowed them to recover, exhaust their enemies, and crush them. A cyber Pearl Harbor is no guarantee of lasting success.

In a long and drawn-out modern war, cyber operations will play a role. Military forces may no longer be able to rely on the satellites on which they have become so dependent. Expensive weapon platforms that depend on modern communications to function can be a wasted investment compared to old-fashioned tanks, guns, and artillery.

But cyber operations alone are unlikely to be decisive on their own. For years, air power enthusiasts predicted that strategic bombing would replace the need for traditional ground operations. We are still waiting. Air power alone never won a war (as opposed to contributing to victory). Events are normally decided on the ground. Likewise, future wars are unlikely to be decided in cyberspace alone.

The real danger of cyber warfare is not that it replaces kinetic operations, but that it spurs them on. The line between war and peace is relatively clear when it comes to tanks, warships, and airplanes, but it is gray when it comes to malware and online bots. If countries feel safer to engage in conflict behind the veil of anonymity provided by the Internet, the risk of a catastrophic miscalculation increases.

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