The Unsettled Question of Offense vs Defense in Cyberwarfare

Media Coverage | March 04, 2020

Some of the most famous military advancements, such as trenches and machine guns, have favored defensive operations, but in the minds of both the public and many policymakers, there is the belief that cyber weapons are different in that they favor the offense. Cited for advancing this argument are the plethora of computer vulnerabilities, the low financial cost of hacking, and the lack of penalties for discovered attacks. While we have a few examples of genuine cyber warfare working effectively, most of our knowledge comes instead from using cyber tools for disruption, espionage and information warfare rather than the use of genuine cyber weapons, that is, cyber tools designed to create physical damage in support of military objectives. Presently, we are unable to say that cyber weapons have an inherent offense-defense balance because they are complex, skill dependent, and we are not sure how effective they will be in conjunction with military actions.

Much of this problem is related to the definition: the term cyberwar is frequently used with little thought applied to what it means. As a result, the use of cyber tools for espionage, propaganda, theft, and disruption are often erroneously labeled acts of cyberwar. Cyberwar, like its regular counterpart, requires material damage such as destroying assets, disabling weapons that rely on digital components, and disabling the critical infrastructures that power the machinery of war. It is these physical effects, and how they complement military actions, which determine whether a weapon is defensive or offensive in nature.

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