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20 May 2007

War in the Parallel World

When is a war a war? When has a war gone “mainstream”, coming out of the shadows of deniable engagements and hidden casualties? What does sustained information warfare truly look like – not in the sterile academic settings of the university lecture, or the exercise conference table – but in the real world of humans and their systems?

If there was ever an answer to the question of threshold, it appears the ongoing cyber conflict involving Russia and Estonia has crossed it. See now Instapundit and Belmont Club, based on the Washington Post.

We have commented on this new conflict before, but a European state on state crisis in the 21st century is more than worth a second glance - if indeed it is truly state on state, for which we have not yet seen definitive attribution.

Wretchard in particular applies an apt name: the Wizard War. This captures, in succinct form, the alienation the typical man on the street might feel in the event of such a war. To be sure, Everyman knows all about the interwebs, and the tubes, and the magic motion picture music box thing that exists to feed their iPods and cameraphones. But the technical understanding of higher level cyber environment dependencies exists at about the same level of comforting abstraction (the legions of Slashdot and the rest of the technical blogsphere aside.) So when more than one banks computers go down, and the panic begins to set in, Everyman will be facing a shattering of illusions for which he is mentally unprepared. The loss of confidence will have a far greater effect than any mere temporary disruption, however mass.

It is in the layers of these abstractions that 5th generation warfare (5GW) lurks and hides. Trying to unpack the complexity of the issues involved in facing a concerted series of attacks against what is our collective hallucination of cyberspace (in Gibson’s terms) begins to take on the character of a Jesuit debating society. We have taken part in our share of these debates throughout our careers, and have yet to find an acceptable set of answers to any of them – but regrettably, keep running into ever more numerous sets of lawyers that all claim they do, even though none of them agree with each other, as the years go by.

In the original Wizard War of World War II (so named by Churchill), these debates were equally as divorced from the prosaic realities of the day. However, it was the boffins of Bletchley Park, and the luminaries of the MI establishment such as R.V. Jones that set the stage for decisive victory – subtly in the European theatre and more brilliantly in the Pacific, illuminated by the impossible brightness of Paul Tibbett’s mission.

But then it was the heyday of the state military-industrial intelligence complexes. It was the time of control, and of massive resources spent towards national ends in a unity of purpose and a shroud of absolute secrecy. That it brought about victory is the lesson of history. But the question before us now stands: can victory be accomplished without reverting to those kinds of organizational and political structures? For today’s environment is far removed from sixty years ago, and some genies can never be put back in their bottles.

There is a good reason that the threshold of cyber war has not yet been fully crossed by state actors (as opposed to their non-state counterparts, whose effects to date have been more akin to terrorism, crime, and disorder than anything approximating a war). Once the triggers have been pulled, there are certain losses which have major systemic effects which ripple beyond borders and far outside of military or even strategic national target sets.

We continue to watch with interest.

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