NEWS | Sept. 1, 2009

Cyberspace and the “First Battle” in 21st-century War

By Robert A. Miller and Daniel T. Kuehl Defense Horizons 68


Cyberspace and the First Battle in 21st-century WarOverview

Wars often start well before main forces engage. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, combat often began when light cavalry units crossed the border. For most of the 20th century, the “first battle” typically involved dawn surprise attacks, usually delivered by air forces.1 While a few of these attacks were so shattering that they essentially decided the outcome of the struggle or at least dramatically shaped its course—the Israeli air force’s attack at the opening of the June 1967 Six-Day War comes to mind—in most cases the defender had sufficient strategic space—geographic and/or temporal—to recover and eventually redress the strategic balance to emerge victorious. The opening moments of World War II for Russia and the United States provide two examples.

The first battle in the 21st century, however, may well be in cyberspace.2 Coordinated cyber attacks designed to shape the larger battlespace and influence a wide range of forces and levers of power may become the key feature of the next war. Early forms of this may have already been seen in Estonia and Georgia. Control of cyberspace may thus be as decisive in the network-dependent early 21st century as control of the air was for most of the 20th century.

In the future, cyber attacks may be combined with other means to inflict paralyzing damage to a nation’s critical infrastructure as well as psychological operations designed to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt, a concept we refer to as infrastructure and information operations. The cyber sphere itself is, of course, a critical warfighting domain that hosts countless information infrastructures, but the rise of network-based control systems in areas as diverse as the power grid and logistics has widened the threat posed by network attacks on opposing infrastructures.