Cyberwar: Fad or Weapon of War?
For all the talk about cyber warfare in the past few years, the first major conventional war in Europe since WWII is raising some questions about how important cyberwar capability really is.
It seems that the most important weapons of war are anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The Ukrainian President keeps asking for more missiles but has hardly mentioned cyber warfare systems.
Then, there is the perceived poor performance of Russian units, even though Russia is considered a leader in cyber warfare and has a large cyber warfare group that regularly hacks into Western computer systems.
So, what is the truth? Is cyberwar a fad or a powerful part of modern warfare?
Admittedly, a Russian tank being blown up by a missile makes for a more exciting video than the quiet infiltration of computer systems.
Computer experts say that Ukraine has been hit by more than 150 cyber-attacks in this war. On the opening day of the war (February 24), Microsoft said its Threat Intelligence System detected “destructive cyber-attacks directed towards Ukraine’s digital infrastructure.”
Microsoft said that the malware used that day, called FoxBlade, was designed to wipe data from connected Ukrainian devices. However, while there have been successful attacks on Ukrainian networks, there haven’t been any dramatic attacks on infrastructure that have changed the direction of the war.
There are three major methods of cyberattack. The first is a “wiper,” which deletes data from a computer network. This keeps people from using the network and accessing their own data. Wiper cyber attacks are part of Russian cyber warfare doctrine and are taking place right now, but they aren’t impacting the war as the Russians hoped.
One of the wiper malwares used before the attack was WhisperGate, which was injected into Ukrainian government systems on January 13th. It was like the cyberattack malware used by the Russians in 2017.
A wiper that was used in conjunction with the beginning of the war was HermeticWiper, which hit on February 23rd, the day before the war. It has spread to some of the Baltic countries.
A Russian wiper deployed the day the war started was IsaacWiper.
Another type of cyberattack is DDoS (Denial of Service). This simply overloads websites so they can’t respond. Although it is a simple method of attack and can be easily countered, it is effective. This was what was used to crash the Ukrainian defense ministry’s website during the early hours of the war so Ukrainian citizens couldn’t get any information from government sites.
Another cyberattack method is defacement attacks and fake news. This is where websites are attacked to change the information on the site. This can be used to report defeats to ruin civilian and military morale. Western analysts are claiming that this method is being used by the Russians against their own population and military to keep bad news about the war from them.
Although the Russians have more sophisticated cyber warfare technology, it appears the Ukrainians are winning the cyberwar by effectively spreading its view of the war to its citizens and other nations.
The major Ukrainian factor in the digital battlefield is its President Zelenskyy, who was a former actor and knows how to communicate to people. His daily reports to his citizens and speeches to politicians and parliaments around the world have galvanized support for Ukraine.
Private cell phones have become a major part of cyber warfare as Ukrainians have taken pictures and videos of destroyed Russian armored vehicles and aircraft – strengthening the narrative that Ukraine is winning.
Cell phone imagery documenting “Russian atrocities” has only strengthened support for Ukraine and will likely mean more arms shipments to the Ukrainian military, including tanks, air defense systems, and possibly combat aircraft.
Which brings us back to the question; is cyber warfare a fad or a useful aspect of warfare?
Ironically, the most effective piece of cyber warfare is spreading information, which is only a digital replacement of propaganda spread through radio, printed media, and television.
The rest of the cyberattacks have merely spread chaos for a short time. It doesn’t appear to be changing the direction of the war.
The reality is that what happens on the real battlefield is more important than what happens on the digital battlefield.
That’s why shipments of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles have proven to be more devastating than all the Russian cyber-attacks.
Military fads have come and gone over the decades. After WWII, everyone thought that nuclear weapons would control the battlefield. Then it was “push button” warfare. After that, it was going to be ballistic missiles. The military has also gone through remote control drones and sophisticated “command and control.”
The reality is that winning wars depends on something older – infantry.
When writing about the infantry, the Fort Benning program on the use of infantry says, “The role of the American infantryman has remained constant since the earliest days of American military history: to close with and destroy the enemy.”
Although technology has changed the tactics and the lethality of the battlefield, the role of infantry has remained the same – to take and hold ground with the infantryman. Aircraft, ships, ballistic missiles, and even tactical nuclear weapons can’t take and hold ground.
Although cyberattacks can cripple computers, it can’t take the place of the basic infantryman. This was proved in the Battle around Kiev. Ukrainian infantrymen held the ground off the roads and in the marshes, where they could launch missile attacks against Russian vehicles and aircraft.
It was Ukrainian infantrymen dug in around Kiev that were more important than Russian missile and aircraft attacks. While the missiles and bombs could kill and wound the Ukrainian infantry, it was the fact that they continued to hold the ground after the attacks that proved the winning factor in the battle.
Clearly cyber warfare has a place on the modern battlefield. However, at best it can only hold the digital battlefield. In the end, the war is won by soldiers who can take, hold, and defend the real battlefield.