The world wars of the 20th century were fought by soldiers, sailors, and airmen in clashes of steel across defined geographical battlefields. World War III, however, could well be fought in the realm of cyberspace. In fact, the war may already have begun.
In the age of the U.N. and 24/7 international diplomacy, it may be reassuring to think that a 21st century world war is unlikely. After all, we are moving through a period in which regional wars spring up from time to time, but a full-scale WWIII seems a rather remote possibility. But, could it be that the stakes – and even the battlefields – have changed dramatically in recent years while you and I were focused on more traditional threats?
You may remember these famous lines of the “Marines’ Hymn” from the 1940s:
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea
The lyric is locked into a mid-20th century understanding of the three types of warfare – air, land, and sea. However, beginning with the “Space Race” of the late 1950s and early ’60s, low-earth orbit joined the areas where war could conceivably take place (despite being limited to “conventional” weapons by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967). And now, we appear to be adding yet another realm.
At least since the first decade of this century, “cyberspace” has been identified as a crucial area in the U.S. military’s contingency planning. This is a recognition of the previously unimaginable destruction that could be done to a country’s infrastructure – the complex, interconnected web of building blocks upon which a society depends – by cyber-attacks from abroad.
“Cyberspace is not a target in itself. It’s a medium.” —Oleksii Yasinsky, cybersecurity researcher, Kiev, Ukraine
Perhaps most alarming to planners is that attacks launched through cyberspace can go unnoticed for months before they begin to cause potentially irreversible damage. For example, Ukraine’s power grids have been targeted and disabled numerous times over the past several years by increasingly complex and sophisticated Russian hacking.
Or consider North Korea, which was identified by U.S. intelligence officials as being behind the “Wanna Cry” cyber-attack that crippled the computer systems of hospitals and other critical targets around the world in May 2017. And China was accused by the U.S. National Security Agency, in 2015, of having launched a broad spectrum of cyber-attacks on American businesses, the government, and the military (although there are indications that such attacks have been significantly curtailed recently).
Attacks on infrastructure are only one type of international cyberwar that has been detected. Russia, for example, has allegedly engaged in a coordinated suite of technological warfare intrusions aimed at the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, and other countries. The forms of attack include:
Russia is not the lone operator in the realm of technological war. Many countries are known or suspected to have significant cyberwar capacity, including both defensive and offensive capabilities. China and North Korea, as mentioned above, are particularly active in the cyber sphere, and Israel and other technologically advanced nations have also reportedly devoted significant resources to cyber capabilities. And, as Edward Snowden revealed, the United States, too, is engaged in cyber operations that are designed to protect from external threat, provide offensive options, and intercept and analyze communications by foreign governments, non-governmental actors such as terrorist groups, and even U.S. citizens.
Currently, however, much more attention is focused on Russia’s known (or strongly suspected) ventures into cyber warfare, the scope and impact of which have been of great concern to many analysts. Russia’s broad strategy appears to be to control its domestic population and to influence adversary states and their alliances. Its tactics are both technical (e.g., attacking and exploiting weaknesses in information infrastructure) and psychological (molding people's behavior and beliefs in favor of Russian interests and objectives), and the potential outcomes are many.
It is not difficult to imagine Russia’s strategy and tactics being adopted by other nations in this new kind of world war. Online espionage against “adversary states” and creation of uncertainty in their political processes could be pursued by any number of countries. Tactics such as attacking the electronic operating systems of conventional weapons and targeting infrastructure such as power grids could very well become more widely used around the world.
In any case, it seems increasingly clear that old distinctions between allies and enemies are eroding, and major powers like Russia, China, and the U.S. (along with regional actors such as North Korea and Iran) have begun seeing other nations on spectrums that range from friendly to adversarial. Why else would the U.S. have been spying on countries that have historically been strong political and military allies, not to mention important partners in trade and other economic activity? And, of course, Russia and the U.S. are not the only players of this new game of geopolitical chess in the cyber realm.
As practices like these become widespread, frequent, and international in scope, we have arguably entered a new age of permanent world war. And this all-encompassing war – let’s call it World War III – is not like any other we’ve faced. For if both the U.S. and Russia are engaging in cyber and information warfare against purported allies as well as rivals, lines have decidedly shifted, and alliances are inevitably weakened.
This realignment doesn’t just impact government actors. It also affects individual citizens, whose personal data is being scooped up – in the name of national security – by their own governments. For governmental agencies that are dedicated to fighting terrorists and other bad actors, there is a belief that virtually all aspects of citizens’ privacy must be observable in order to root out those who are trying to escape notice. This is no longer a secret. What is perhaps surprising, especially in the U.S., is how willing a large swath of citizens is to trade traditional elements of personal liberty for the broader security that the government purports to protect.
In the permanent World War III in cyberspace, governments drift incrementally toward total surveillance of their citizens. Everyone and everything are viewed as suspicious, and protections against governmental overreach (such as legally executed warrants) become encumbrances that the responsible agencies seem all too eager to circumvent. Principles like freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, and presumption of innocence are in danger of seeming quaint and “impractical.”
“It is only when you look at the entire population that the people who are the riskiest . . . can get the attention they deserve.” —Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush
This is the world in which we now live. Terrorist attacks can be directed from thousands of miles away. A powerful government (Russia) is suspected of undermining other countries’ democratically held elections. Another country (North Korea) may be committing cyber thievery to finance its nuclear arsenal. And yet another (China) has been accused of hacking into U.S. public and private institutions, not to mention businesses for financial gain. The new normal is a realization that our individual privacy may have been irretrievably compromised. We are all – globally and individually – at risk in the new space we inhabit, where world war is relentless but almost invisible.
Kevin Martin is Senior Writer for MagellanTV. He writes on a wide variety of topics, including outer space, the fine arts, and history. He has had a long career as a journalist and communications specialist with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. He resides in Glendale, California.
Arthur M. Marx is Articles Editor for MagellanTV. He was previously a senior writer/editor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He lives in Sarasota, Florida.
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