Cyber warfare
Navy Capt. Michael Boock of the National Defense University discusses the ethics of cyber warfare with Cadets attending the annual George C. Marshall Awards and Leadership Seminar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Photo by Steve Arel/U.S. Army Cadet Command

LEXINGTON, Va. -- The once-definitive frontlines of the battlefield have become blurred. A Soldier never knows when or where the enemy might surface.

So when military leaders and strategists discuss the combat environment, they describe it as a 360-degree arena.

Cyber warfare offers even more disguise, taking those blurred battlefield lines and completely wiping them away.

"Eventually, we'll be talking about battles online," said Joshua Smith, a Cadet with the University of Wisconsin-Stout. "It's as important as any battlefront we'll fight on."

Cyber warfare has become an increasingly relevant topic among the mix of roundtables offered to soon-to-be lieutenants attending the annual George C. Marshall Awards and Leadership Seminar. Electronic dangers pose such a threat to national security these days that all branches of the military created specialty fields to employ Soldiers who can understand the vulnerabilities and devise ways to combat them.

The Marshall roundtable session titled "Ethics of Cyber Warfare" demanded considerable contemplation from Cadets, getting them to use critical thinking skills and outcomes-based methodologies to weigh what might provoke forceful action and how best to respond. Unfortunately, Navy Capt. Michael Boock admitted a few times, the definition of an act of war in the cyberworld isn't clear-cut.

Besides, there aren't established norms and rules of engagement covering technological warfare as there are in traditional combat. And that's what can make judging something as a use of force that warrants armed conflict so difficult.

So when would a cyber-related situation cross the line from peace to war, Boock asked the Cadets.

He posed a scenario where a foreign country enacts a cyber attack against the United States that ends up shutting down Wall Street for a day. No transactions get made, no stocks get traded, no purchases or sales go through. Losses from the inactivity could be immense.

Beyond that, the shutdown could trigger panic, affecting people's psyche as they wonder how long the shutdown will last and how badly their investments will suffer, said Morgan Mushlitz of Seattle University.

"That's a visible action against the United States," an adamant Mushlitz said.

But when Boock suggested bombing the responsible party because of its perceived use of force, Mushlitz balked. Boock said a resolution could come through diplomatic means or by not responding at all.

In cyber warfare, targets usually don't know they've been affected -- or by whom -- until it's too late. One Cadet asked about time limitations on retaliation.

That depends, Boock said. One would have to know the source of the attack and who or what initiated it. Then, political leaders would have to be convinced and approve a response. And if they choose to do so, they'd have to determine the most appropriate means.

"It's a lot easier if you've got guys with AK47s coming across the border," Boock said. "It's not so easy with a group of guys on a computer."

Smith will graduate this spring with a bachelor's degree in information technology. He knows the importance of digital technology, the power of the Internet and the havoc wrong-doers can wreak by hacking and manipulating computer systems.

The world has become so reliant on computers and connectivity that even the slightest interruption can have far-reaching effects, Smith said. Technology is so key, he believes more damage can be done with a computer than with a rifle.

"There will always be a need for land and air warfare," Smith said. "This is going to be the way wars are fought."

Cyber issues have been discussed in government circles since the 1990s, but they've moved to the forefront in recent years. As the cyber field continues to evolve and new threats emerge, Boock predicted that someone participating in his roundtable would spend time during their career working in the field.

"It's going to be a growth industry," he said. "Even with budget cuts, they're not cutting cyber. Everybody's in."

Page last updated Tue April 16th, 2013 at 00:00