Why the next World War will be a cyberwar first, and a shooting war second

Opinion: The US already has lost the first battles, and may not have the national will to defend itself in the inevitable global conflict to come. David Gewirtz looks at the geopolitical implications of cyberwarfare.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Credit: map.ipviking.com
Everything we do revolves around the Internet. Older technologies are finding themselves eclipsed by their Internet-based substitute solutions.

Even technologies historically unrelated to networking (like medical instruments) are finding themselves part of the Internet, whether as a way to simply update firmware, or using the network to keep track of telemetry and develop advanced analytics.

Whether we're talking about social networking, financial systems, communications systems, journalism, data storage, industrial control, or even government security -- it is all part of the Internet.

That makes the world a very, very dangerous place.

Historically, wars are fought over territory or ideology, treasure or tradition, access or anger. When a war begins, the initial aggressor wants something, whether to own a critical path to the sea or strategic oil fields, or "merely" to cause damage and build support among certain constituencies.

At first, the defender defends, protecting whatever has been attacked. Over time, however, the defender also seeks strategic benefit, to not only cause damage in return, but to gain footholds that will lead to an end to hostilities, a point of leverage for negotiation, or outright conquest.

Shooting wars are very expensive and very risky. Tremendous amounts of material must be produced and transported, soldiers and sailors must be put into harm's way, and incredible logistics and supply chain operations must be set up and managed on a nationwide (or multi-national level).

Cyberwar is cheap. The weapons are often co-opted computers run by the victims being targeted. Startup costs are minimal. Individual personnel risk is minimal. It's even possible to conduct a cyberwar without the victims knowing (or at least being able to prove) who their attackers are.

Cyberwar can be brutal, anonymous -- and profitable.

But the damage done by a cyberwar can be huge, especially economically. Let's follow that idea for a moment.

One of the big reasons the U.S. won the Cold War (and scored highly in many of its other conflicts) is because it had the economic power to produce goods for war, whether capital ships or food for troops. A economically strong nation can invest in weapons R&D, creating a technological generation gap in terms of leverage and per-capita effectiveness compared to weaker nations.

But cyberwar can lay economic waste to a nation. Worse, the more technologically powerful a nation is, the more technologically dependent that nation becomes. Cyberwar can level the playing field, forcing highly connected nations to thrash, to jump at every digital shadow while attackers can co-opt the very resources of the defending nation to force-multiply their attacks.

Sony is still cleaning up after the hack that exposed many confidential aspects of its relationship with stars and producers. Target and Home Depot lost millions of credit cards.

The Snowden theft, while not the result of an outside hack, shows the economic cost of a national security breach: nearly $47 billion. Cyberwar can also cause damage to physical systems, ranging from electric power stations to smart automobiles.

And when a breach can steal deeply confidential information of a government's most trusted employees, nothing remains safe or secret. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management was unwittingly funneling America's personnel data to its hackers for more than a year. Can you imagine?

We think China was responsible for the OPM hack. Despite the gargantuan nation's equally gargantuan investments in America (or, perhaps, because of them), China has been accused of many of the most effective and persistent penetrations perpetrated by any nation.

Providing additional reason to worry, Russia and China have recently inked an agreement where they agreed to not launch cyberattacks against each other. They have also agreed to share cyberwarfare and cyberdefense technology, creating an Asian axis of power that can split the world in half.

On the other side of the geopolitical spectrum are the American NSA and British GCHQ, two organizations who share signals intelligence and -- if the screaming is to be believed -- spy as much upon their own citizens as enemies of the state.

It is important to note that the destabilization of Allied intelligence can be traced to Edward Snowden, who ran to and is currently living in Russia after stealing a vast trove of American state secrets. Ask yourself who gained from the Snowden affair. Was it America? No. Was it Snowden? Not really. Was it Russia? You betcha.

China, of course, supplies us with most of our computer gear. Every iPhone and every Android phone, nearly all our servers, laptop computers, routers -- heck, the entire technological core of American communications -- has come from China. The same China that has been actively involved in breaching American interests at all levels.

Russia and China. Again and again and again.

In the center of all this is the main body of Europe, where the last two incendiary world wars were fostered and fought.

Nations fall when they are economically unstable. Greece is seeing the writing on the wall right now. It is but one of many weak European Union members. Other EU members are former Soviet states who look eastward towards Putin's Russia with a mixture of fear and inevitability.

This time, Germany isn't the instigator of unrest, but instead finds itself caught in the middle -- subject to spying by and active in spying on its allies -- the only nearly-super power of the EU.

Here's how the coming world cyberwar will play out

An enemy (or even a supposed "friendly" nation) decides it needs the strategic upper hand. After years of breaches, it has deep access to nearly every powerful government and business figure in the United States. Blackmail provides access into command and control and financial systems.

Financial systems are hit and we suffer a recession worse than the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Our budget for just about everything (as well as our will) craters. Industrial systems (especially those that might post a physical or economic threat to our attacker) are hit next. They are shut down or damaged in the way Stuxnet took out centrifuges in Iran.

Every step America takes to respond is anticipated by the enemy -- because the enemy has a direct pipeline to every important piece of communication America produces, and that's because the enemy has stolen enough information to corrupt an army of Snowdens.

While this is all going on, the American public is blissfully in the dark. Citizens just get angrier and angrier at the leadership for allowing a recession to take hold, and for allowing more and more foreigners to take American jobs.

Europe, which has always relied on America to keep it propped-up in the worst of times, will be on its own. Russia will press in from the north east. ISIS will continue to explode in the Middle East. China will keep up its careful dance as it grows into the world's leading economic power.

India, second in size only to China and a technological hotbed itself, remains a wild card, physically surrounded by Europe, the Middle East, China, and Russia. India continues to live in conflict with Pakistan, and with Pakistan both unstable and nuclear-tipped, Indo-Pak, too, is on the precipice.

A world war is about huge nations spanning huge geographic territories fighting to rewrite the map of world power. Russia, China, ISIS (which calls itself the Islamic State), India, Pakistan, the US, the UK, and all of the strong and weak members of the EU: we certainly have the cast of characters for another global conflict.

I could keep going (and, heck, one day I might game the full scenario). But you can see how this works. If enemy nations can diminish our economic power, can spy on our strategic discussions, and can turn some of our key workers, they can take us out of the battle -- without firing a single shot.

We are heading down this path now. I worry that we do not have the national or political will to turn the tide back in our favor. This is what keeps me up at night.

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