On the Foreign Policy website today, David Rothkopf uses the term “Cool War” (new to me) to describe so called “cyberwar”, the use of computer hacking and digital attacks by state actors on one another. A very current example of cyberwar was in the headlines this Tuesday with the Mandiant report on Chinese Army hacking of US computer networks. Here’s Rothkopf explaining why the “Cool War” is different from the “Cold War” that those of us over the age of thirty remember.

“This new war is “cool” rather than “cold” for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of “cool,” in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War — which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare.

The Cool War is largely different not only because of the participants or the nature of the conflict, but also because it can be conducted indefinitely — permanently, even — without triggering a shooting war. At least that is the theory.”

I hope that someone in the legal and military comunity who thinks about Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) is tracking this. LOAC is geared to kinetic conflict, where bullets and bombs are employed to cause physical harm, and is designed to protect the innocent (civilians, non-combatants) from violence and ill treatment. The sanctions exercised by the world community (eg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague, NL) are designed to deter the leaders of states or sub-state actors (militias, guerrilla armies, etc) from war crimes committed in a kinetic conflict through fear of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.

What fear, other than the fear of escalation to a kinetic, military conflict, deters those who order cyberattacks on other countries and, by extension, on their people? It’s one thing to steal plans from a major defense manufacturer, but what happens when Cool Warriors start touching the lives of populations? In an increasingly fragile and technologically dependent world, this future is not hard to imagine. What if banking were to crash for an extended period, causing economic crisis and even hunger? What if the power grid were brought down in the depths of winter, or air transport was halted by the hacking of navigation aids, satellites, etc? What if civilian populations are displaced, harmed, or even killed by these actions? Could those responsible be charged with war crimes? Could these crimes even be defined?

One thing is for certain. We are, as Rothkopf writes, “in the midst of a sea change in the way nations project force”. It would be helpful for the international community to discuss how we might limit the uses of this new force, while we still can.

0 Responses

  1. An excellent piece to think, Mike. We are not yet sesitive enough to the damage and disruption that this new form war can cause.

    For professional reasons I'm deeply familiarised with energy infrastructures and you can't hardly believe how vulnerable they are and even worse, the lack of real understanding by the executives or the Boards running these companies

  2. That's a very interesting question about LOAC and cyber warfare. I wouldn't want to wrestle with integrating the two.

  3. I wonder how such national activity interact with multi-national companies who have no real nationality or allegiance to anything other profit and themselves fit into this world? It seems to me that commercial and political interests often overlap and or conflict.

    In an age of information and dis-information I suspect it could all become a bit murky as to who is responsible for what.