Cyberwarfare, the privateering of today
Germany’s Ministry of Defence is creating a unified cyberwarfare command, adding what amounts to a fifth service to the four traditional operational areas – land, sea, air and space. Minister Ursula von der Leyen has appointed a physicist and former McKinsey consultant, Katrin Suder, to supervise the process. The reorganisation highlights the importance of the potential threat, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
The cyber battlefield is new and quite untested. Cyber attacks have become almost commonplace, but are not recognised as warlike because so little physical damage is involved. People generally do not get killed or wounded; buildings, roads or bridges are not destroyed.
Yet cyberspace is so vital to the infrastructure, services and manufacturing of modern economies that its disruption can have consequences similar to those of a real war. Precision attacks on information systems can bring energy networks, supply chains and essential services such as health-care to a standstill.
When European mariners began to explore the world’s oceans in the 15th century, they entered similarly uncharted waters. Spain and Portugal, the pioneering powers, quickly laid claim to vast new areas, making up the rules as they went along.
Their dominance swiftly provoked a reaction from England, and then from the Netherlands and France, which attacked the monopolistic Iberians by issuing letters of marque to privateers. In other words, like modern rogue states, they sponsored pirates.
As European states became richer and more organised in the 17th and 18th centuries, a global struggle was fought for command of the seas. Navies became the centerpiece of national strategies to build commerce and project power, as described by Alfred Thayer Mahan in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890).
Privateering continued to be tolerated as a useful expedient until the 19th century, when the most developed countries decided its destructive effects on trade were too great. Once the struggle for maritime dominance was won by Great Britain’s Royal Navy, a framework was found to contain piracy and introduce internationally accepted rules, to the huge benefit of global commerce.
Cyberspace is as wide open today as the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans were four centuries ago. The difference is that we are much more dependent on information networks than those earlier Europeans were on overseas imports.
As with the oceans, it may take a long time for world powers to agree on an accepted framework in cyberspace. Too much is unknown and too many breathtaking developments may yet take place.
In the meantime, it is astonishing to see how much lip service is being paid to cybersecurity, while so little is being done to implement it. Attacks can happen anywhere and at every level, with immediate and devastating effect on companies, communities, industries and entire countries.
This is first and foremost a matter of national security. Cyber protection is also very much a corporate responsibility.
But what is usually overlooked is the absolutely crucial role of civil defence. People’s basic needs include food, water, power and access to medical care – all goods and services that can be easily interrupted if information networks and supply chains are disrupted.
Yet since the end of the Cold War, European countries have reduced their civil defence capabilities. Budget cuts and just-in-time logistical networks have removed reserve stocks and redundant capacities of everything from food to generators to hospital beds.
The consequences of a massive cyber attack could be borne by millions of ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, here again it appears that Europe has neglected its defences.