Strategic War . . . in Cyberspace
Recognizing this possibility, in January 1995 the Secretary of Defense established an Information Warfare Executive Board to facilitate "the development and achievement of national information warfare goals." RAND was asked to provide an analytic framework and exercise for identifying defensive information warfare issues, exploring their consequences, and highlighting starting points for policy development. Among those points emanating from the exercise were the following:
- Establish within the Executive Office of the President a focal point for
federal leadership in support of a coordinated response to the information
- Assess the vulnerability of key elements of current U.S. national security
and national military strategy to strategic information warfare.
- Explore the feasibility of developing a minimum essential information infrastructure, permitting effective overseas force deployments and keeping the nation functioning even in the face of a sophisticated information warfare attack.
The exercise scenario thus highlighted from the start a fundamental aspect of strategic information warfare: There is no "front line." Though defense planners are used to thinking of information-related attacks in terms of such actions as jamming in-theater military communications, strategic targets in the United States may prove just as vulnerable. So also may targets in allied "zones of interior" and in the systems supporting U.S. force deployment. As a result, the attention of exercise participants quickly broadened to include four distinct theaters of operation, as shown in the figure.
The Changing Face of War: Four Strategic Information Warfare Theaters of Operation
- Low entry cost. In contrast to the strategic nuclear environment of
the cold war, a strategic information attack on the United States might be made
without access to large financial resources or state sponsorship. The
"weapons" could be software "logic bombs" or computer worms and viruses, the
"delivery systems," cellular telephones and the Internet.
- Blurred traditional boundaries. In cyberspace, the boundaries
nations and private-sector organizations are porous, rendering distinctions
between war and crime, and between public and private interests, less
meaningful. International activist organizations may function largely over the
Internet and provide (perhaps unintentional) cover for information warriors
within their ranks.
- Expanded role for perception management. New information-based
techniques may substantially increase the power of deception and image
manipulation activities. Disinformation may make it difficult for the U.S.
government to build political support for actions needed to ensure national
- Lack of strategic intelligence. Vulnerabilities to strategic
information warfare are poorly understood. The identities of potential
adversaries may be unknown, and classical intelligence collection and analysis
methods may not apply. New methods of analysis and interorganizational
relations may have to be developed.
- Difficulty of tactical warning and attack assessment. There will be
formidable problems in distinguishing between strategic information warfare
attacks and other kinds of activities and events, such as espionage, accidents,
system failures, and hacker pranks. An inability to make such distinctions
could lead to very cautious military responses to regional challenges such as
those hypothesized in the exercise.
- Difficulty of building and sustaining coalitions. Coalition
could be at risk to the weakest information links binding the alliance. An
inability to protect partners from information warfare attacks could jeopardize
the United States' ability to form and sustain coalitions.
- Vulnerability of the U.S. homeland. The U.S. economy and society
rely increasingly on a high-performance networked information infrastructure for
everything from air travel and electric-power provision to management of
citizens' financial accounts. A new set of lucrative strategic targets thus
presents itself to potential information warriors.
RAND research briefs summarize research that has been more fully documented elsewhere. This research brief describes work done for the National Defense Research Institute; it is documented in Strategic Information Warfare: A New Face of War, by Roger C. Molander, Andrew S. Riddile, and Peter A. Wilson, MR-661-OSD, 1995, 125 pp., ISBN: 0-8330-2352-7. Abstracts of all RAND documents may be viewed on the World Wide Web (). Publications are distributed to the trade by National Book Network. RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve public policy through research and analysis; its publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of its research sponsors.
RAND's Home Page