Tag Archives: cyberwarfare

21st Century Warfare and Just War Theory

The use of cyberwarfare and predator drones (above) raise questions about the ethics of war in the 21st century.

Recent leaks of classified information on drone strikes, cyberwarfare, and terror plots have prompted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint two prosecutors to investigate these leaks.  Much of the secret information has appeared in a series of New York Times articles dealing with the president’s national security decision-making.  While the leaks themselves are an important story, the content of the classified information paints a picture of a president and his advisers grappling with questions of ethics in an age of unconventional warfare.

Just War Theory refers to a body of thought developed over centuries by philosophers, theologians, and other scholars.  It seeks to define conditions under which war is just, or ethically defensible.  There is wide agreement on principles such as discrimination (the need to distinguish between combatants and civilians–one can target the former but should avoid attacking the latter).  But applying this principle in a war zone can become very difficult.  What if you are fighting against insurgents who don’t wear uniforms and use the civilian population as cover?  And what if the enemy puts a tank (a legitimate military target) next to a hospital or school?  Can the tank be attacked with an airstrike?

Advances in technology (e.g., nuclear weapons in the 20th century and cyberweapons/drones in the 21st century) can further complicate the application of Just War Theory to real-world cases.  Recent leaks describe President Obama personally ordering drone strikes against targets on a “kill list” and also ordering cyberwarfare to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.  But they also show a president grappling with the ethical issues raised by such technology.  One New York Times article claims that the principle of discrimination plays a key role in decision-making on cyberwarfare:

“…Precisely because the United States refuses to talk about its new cyberarsenal, there has never been a real debate in the United States about when and how to use cyberweapons.  President Obama raised many of the issues in the closed sanctum of the Situation Room, participants in the conversation say, pressing aides to make sure that the attacks were narrowly focused so that they did not take out Iranian hospitals or power plants and were directed only at the country’s nuclear infrastructure. ‘He was enormously focused on avoiding collateral damage,’ one official said, comparing the arguments over using cyberwar to the debates about when to use drones.”

What do you think?  Has the U.S. been sufficiently careful to avoid civilian casualties in its use of drones and other weapons in Iraq, Aghanistan, and elsewhere?  Are some civilian casualties unavoidable and thus acceptable in warfare?  What are the limits of discrimination as a requirement for a just war?

Cyberwarfare and International Relations

Iranian President Ahmadinejad visits a uranium enrichment plant near Natanz where the Stuxnet virus infected computers and damaged centrifuges.

Are advances in “cyberwarfare” moving faster than states’ ability to manage them?  Two New York Times articles this week raise some interesting–and at times disturbing–questions about the implications of cyberwarfare for national security and international relations.  The United States and Israel have used cyberattacks over the past few years in an effort to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, but the long term consequences of relying on such tools are unclear.  In an article entitled “Mutually Assured Cyberdestruction?” New York Times columnist David Sanger raises the following questions:

“Does the United States want to legitimize the use of cyberweapons as a covert tool? Or is it something we want to hold in reserve for extreme cases? Will we reach the point — as we did with chemical weapons, and the rest of the world did with land mines — that we want treaties to ban their use? Or is that exactly the wrong analogy, in a world in which young hackers, maybe working on their own or maybe hired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or the Russian mob, can launch attacks themselves?”  As Sanger notes, treaties–a key source of international law–have been used to codify opposition to chemical weapons and land mines.  More broadly, international norms (generally unwritten expectations about appropriate behavior) have arisen that prohibit the use of weapons of mass destruction–chemical, biological, and nuclear.  Could treaties and norms also be used to manage the spread and utilization of cyberweapons?

Sanger compares the cyberwarfare “learning period” in which we find ourselves to the early years of the Cold War, when the world was grappling with the dangers and utility of nuclear weapons: “It took years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for the nation to develop a common national understanding of when and how to use a weapon of such magnitude. Not until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years ago this October, did a consensus emerge that the weapon was too terrible ever to employ again, save as a deterrent and a weapon of last resort.”  This may seem like hyperbole, but Sanger quotes Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as warning that the “next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems.”  A second recent NY Times article, entitled “Expert Issues a Cyberwar Warning,” notes that military contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, are already developing devastating computer viruses for different U.S. intelligence agencies.  Are we approaching the point where we need to begin thinking of deterrence in the cyber domain, as we have in the nuclear arena?

What do you think?  Given their destructive potential, should cyberweapons be categorized alongside nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction?   Should their use be banned by international treaty?  Or are cyberweapons a way to accomplish important missions without the bloodshed and “collateral damage” of conventional weaponry?