Tanks to Thinktanks: Migration to Cyberwar

For quite some time there has been speculation and vehement discussions around how the war of the future won’t be fought on the traditional battlefield (at least not there alone) but online and in cyberspace. This statement is no more true as of lately due to the advent of the battle of giants: Google and China! Additionally this morning on IT-Harvest there are a multitude of compelling pieces on how cyberwar is expanding “to a new front”.

“This is a watershed moment in the cyber war,” James Mulvenon, director of the national-security firm, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis at Defense Group Inc., said last week. “Before, the Chinese were going after defense targets to modernize the country’s military machine. But these intrusions strike at the heart of American innovation community.”


The proposals aren’t just ending at making statements about where the new front is being fought, but high level military officials are actually now saying to revector military budgets partially away from tanks and planes to high tech cyber defense and potentially even cyber offensive capabilities. General David Richards, Great Britain’s army chief, is of this mindset.

Britain’s armed forces are facing a new “horse versus tank moment” in dealing with the challenges of modern warfare, he told the weekly broadsheet. “People say I’m only talking about war with non-state actors,” Richards said, such as the Taliban insurgents currently being fought in Afghanistan. “I’m not. I’m saying this is how even war between states is more likely to be fought in the future.”

Let’s think about the facts here.

  1. Conventional and mechanized war is expensive; cyber threats are cheap.
  2. The skills to fight conventional war take time to develop; cyber criminals can be high school kids in any part of the world.
  3. There are significant barriers to entry and obtaining tools for fighting conventional warfare; cyber threats are available in open source and scalable tools.
  4. Conventional reconnaissance mostly finds the conventional threats; new cyber threats using wireless devices and technologies may NEVER be detected until it was already too late.
  5. Who has been investing longer in their cyber skills? The criminals! The good guys need to catchup and look at this problem in a very different way than how they’ve been trained in the past. Throw out the old rule book!!!

We certainly can’t move completely from equipping our soldiers and Marines with headphones and keyboards rather than helmets and rifles. But the relatively unsophisticated new enemy “combatant” is working on very novel, subtle and inexpensive ways of affecting our economy, national security and critical infrastructures to our nation. We need to take a lesson or two from them to beat them at their own game.