The debate in the West over the future of warfare has been going on for almost two decades now. Two questions dominate the debate. The first is the extent to which information technologies (IT), overall, but specifically cyber capabilities, would shape future warfare. The second is the extent of the shift in coercive power from states to non-state actors. The answers to both questions converged in the theory of warfare in the information age. As framed by analysts such as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in their groundbreaking work, In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, conflict in the age of IT would tend to favor non-state actors because of their non-hierarchical, small and networked organization, lesser commitment than nation states to large, complex and costly war machines, and the ability of small numbers of hackers to attack vulnerable IT systems.(1) The effects of the IT revolution, the authors argued, would be truly transformational to most spheres of human activity, including warfare:
“The information revolution, in both its technological and non-technological aspects, sets in motion forces that challenge the design of many institutions. It disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which institutions are normally designed. It diffuses and redistributes power, often to the benefit of what may be considered weaker, smaller actors. It crosses borders and redraws the boundaries of offices and responsibilities. It expands the spatial and temporal horizons that actors should take into account. And thus it generally compels closed systems to open up.”
As Arquilla, Ronfeldt and others predicted, cyber warfare has become a reality. U.S. government reports document attacks on both public and private IT systems numbering in the tens of thousands; some officials have spoken of the possibility of a cyber “Pearl Harbor.” During the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict there were targeted cyber attacks against the latter’s IT networks. Iran’s program to produce enriched uranium was set back significantly by the Stuxnet computer virus. Chinese “hackers” are alleged to have penetrated thousands of sensitive computers, stealing classified information and leaving behind cyber bombs that could be triggered in the event of conflict with the United States.
States are making significant, even dramatic investments in cyber warfare capabilities. The United States created Cyber Command in 2010. The new organization is responsible for both defending Department of Defense information networks and conducting full spectrum cyber operations. Even as the Pentagon contemplates cutting force structure and weapons programs in response to declining budgets, it has emphasized the importance of expanding its investments in cyber capabilities.
All of these activities may be less significant in predicting the future of conflict in the information age than a curious and unexpected confrontation reported by the Washington Post’s blogPost. According to Elizabeth Flock, the hacker group Anonymous has threatened to go to war against the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. Apparently, the cartel kidnapped a member of the hacker group. In a You Tube video, Anonymous warned that if their member is not released, it would fight back with information and not weapons by outing all the Zetas’ allies in the Mexican police and news media.
This confrontation poses an interesting test case for the future of conflict. Both Anonymous and the Zetas conform to the Arquilla and Ronfeldt description of the power of 21st century non-state, trans-national organizations. But there their similarities end. One specializes in information over weapons while the other is the quintessential kinetic killer. Will hacking trump bloodletting?
The outcome of this confrontation will be instructive not only for non-state actors but nation states as well. As the United States has demonstrated since September 11 it has become very good at small unit kinetic operations. There is no better evidence than the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It is not clear that the U.S. can become equally proficient in cyber warfare. However, it may not have to if kinetic can counter cyber.
In the introduction to their seminal work, Arquilla and Ronfeldt predicted that “curious combinations of pre-modern and post-modern elements will appear in antagonists’ ideologies, objectives, doctrines, and organizational designs.” The Zetas versus Anonymous; it doesn’t get more pre-modern/post-modern than this.
(1) John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, The RAND Corporation, 1997.
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