June 08, 2011

Mahnken: Cyber Warfare Favors The Strong

Cyber warfare cannot compensate for weaknesses in other instruments of power, says a new paper from a Naval War College professor.

Cyber attacks have a reputation of aiding weak states in possible conflicts against strong ones, but strong countries possess more, and more lethal, options to retaliate, says Thomas Mahnken, chair of economic geography and national security at the Naval War College. His paper was printed as part of a Center for a New American Security report on cybersecurity released May 31.

"The weaker power might be able to cause a stronger power some annoyance through cyber attack, but in seeking to compel an adversary through cyber war, it would run the very real risk of devastating retaliation," Mahnken says.

And contrary to popular perception, a cyber attack launched against a high-value target would be more likely to cause retaliation, since the use of cyber rather than kinetic means could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, Mahnken adds.

Cyber warfare can produce two types of strategic effects, Mahnken says: punishment and denial. As a tool for punishment, cyber attacks have limited utility. Cyber attacks don't directly have lethal effects and limited ability to inflict broader damage, Mahnken says.

"Even in the case of attacks on a state's economic infrastructure, it is doubtful that a cyber attack would be capable of producing more damage than a strategic air campaign. Other military means are far better at killing people and inflicting damage than cyber attacks."

When used to deny an opponent wartime use of its informational networks, cyber attacks would have value, Mahnken says, but such a situation would again favor the strong over the weak.

"By recognizing what cyber means can--and cannot--do, we can better prepare ourselves for a more realistic range of scenarios," he concludes.