Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Future of Communicating Threatening Intentions: Cyber Warfare

By Morgan GreenePublished October 11, 2013

It has never been easier than it is today to inflict damage and take lives without boots on the ground. Using cruise missiles, predator drones, and even nuclear weapons, the U.S. can exert influence without directly risking American lives. In a time when technology has the potential to inflict massive casualties, the solution should be obvious"”attack technology, not people.
It has never been easier than it is today to inflict damage and take lives without boots on the ground. Using cruise missiles, predator drones, and even nuclear weapons, the U.S. can exert influence without directly risking American lives. Despite the tactical ease of these weapons, is their use moral? Cowardly? Do they have the potential to provoke violent responses? The development of cyber warfare presents an alternative, non-violent approach that lessens the relevance of these weighty questions. Although the use of cyber warfare may cause a proliferation of these tactics in other countries, it is a more successful and less morally objectionable strategy for maintaining redlines and ensuring U.S. security. Recently, the success of cyber warfare has become evident through the success of U.S. and Israeli cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities to slow down that country's nuclear ambitions. Even the recent Syrian cyber attacks on US media interests demonstrate the advantage of adversaries communicating threatening intentions without resorting to violence. In a time when technology has the potential to inflict massive casualties, the solution should be obvious—attack technology, not people. 

Iran's potential nuclear problem presented the ideal situation to implement this strategy. President Obama is a strong proponent of avoiding direct warfare and decreasing casualties, exemplified by his removal of most troops from Iraq and the increased use of drones to target terrorists directly. (1) Thus, it is no surprise that he would be an advocate of the use of cyber warfare. The United States, in conjunction with the Israeli government, created a cyber warfare bug called "Stuxnet" with the ability to control centrifuges and other machines in Iranian nuclear facilities, causing them to speed up, slow down, or self-destruct. (2) One of the Stuxnet designers stated afterwards that the project's primary goal was not only to set back the construction of nuclear weapons physically, but also "the intent was that the failures should make them feel they were stupid." This latter objective was likely achieved when the Iranian government realized that it had wrongly fired engineers for system failures that were not their fault. (3) This first large-scale use of cyber weapons was viewed as a comprehensive success, setting the Iranian nuclear program back by "18 months to two years." (4)

Although President Obama and other U.S. officials admit that the development and use of cyber weapons set a precedent that other countries may follow, they concluded that the benefits of this strategy outweigh the costs. (5) Even if other countries were to adopt this strategy, it would be better than more violent alternatives, such as nuclear proliferation. Although cyber warfare has the potential to inflict casualties and destroy infrastructure, the United States has set a precedent for the use of cyber weapons to send messages that had previously been pursued violently. For instance, Syria cyber attackers recently shut down the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Twitter in retaliation for the announcement that the U.S. was considering a missile strike on Syria. (6) The attack successfully conveyed a strong message without the use of violence. Syria's attack was labeled a "nuisance" inflicting no real harm on the economy or citizen's safety. (7) In comparison to a violent terrorist attack, which would likely have provoked a military response by the US, the Syrian cyber attack demonstrated the value of cyber warfare as a nonviolent means of communicating messages and drawing attention to an issue. 

If Syria chooses to defy international negotiations and maintain chemical weapon stores, cyber warfare could be a viable and internationally acceptable solution to maintain the established redline and protect U.S. security. By utilizing cyber warfare against Syria, the U.S. would be able to cripple Syria's weapons infrastructure, ensure civilian safety, and prevent escalation. The United States must tread carefully in its relations with the Middle East, as it cannot afford to spark another conflict or more widespread anti-American sentiment. While cyber ware fare is not necessarily a friendly tactic, it does not directly effect civilian populations, or cause physical harm. Thus, by using cyber warfare, the U.S. could send a strong and definitive message while also putting "a meat axe in  [Assad's] command-and-control capabilities by sowing confusion, distrust, and chaos into those systems." (8)

Cyber warfare will become an increasingly prevalent weapon in the coming years. Although it has the ability to be misused, it is clear that it provides a viable method for deterring the construction and use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, without as great a risk of inducing a cycle of violent attack and counterattack. It is important that the U.S., in conjunction with the United Nations, develops definitive legislation dictating how and when cyber warfare may be used. If these guidelines are put into place, then cyber warfare has the potential to replace more violent strategies, reducing the number of casualties and fostering increased negotiation.

 1. Richard Maass, "Fighting War and Covert Intervention." Class lecture, American Foreign Policy from Cornell University, Ithaca, September 25, 2013.
 2. Ibid.
 3. Sanger, David. "Obama Ordered Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran." The New York Times, (accessed September 29, 2013).
 4. Ibid.

 5. Ibid.
 6. Acohido, Bryan. "Syria's cyber retaliation signals new era of warfare." USA TODAY: Latest World and US News. (accessed September 29, 2013).
 7. Ibid.

 8. Farwell, James. "Commentary: A Better Syria Option: Cyber War | The National Interest." The National Interest. (accessed September 29, 2013).