Space, Cyber and Changing Notions of War

Space, Cyber and Changing Notions of War

Jerry Drew

Prior to the establishment of a separate United States Air Force (USAF) in 1947, civilian and military theorists began developing concepts for how the military might exploit space-based capabilities. As these ideas matured over the next half century, the space domain became an integral part of routine military operations. With the creation of the Advanced Research Project Agency’s (ARPA) information network, ARPA-net, in the late 1960s and concurrent developments in computer science, the cyberspace domain began to take form and has matured into a unique military domain. These two domains have changed the traditional notions of what constitutes war by expanding war into a global and continuous enterprise, by demanding a premium on rapid technological innovation, and by creating a potentially dangerous uncertainty in the military decision calculus.

The space and cyberspace domains have allowed military operations to occur across the globe and in a continuous manner. Prior to the militarization of space and the introduction of networked computer technology, warfare occurred on a global scale, but physical distance largely isolated field commanders from conflicts in other theaters and from rearward headquarters. Military operations occurred in the traditional domains with a great amount of uncertainty, and information sharing, at its best, occurred by wire, wireless radio, or aircraft message delivery. With the introduction of the satellite, commanders and staffs could communicate over vast distances, know their precise location, and receive space-based intelligence products, meteorological data, and missile warning. Moreover, satellites can provide data and communications to multiple theaters through ground-based, computer-operated information architectures. As cyber operations have come into their own, they show the same capability to effect areas separate from their location and require the same kind of continuous use. Combined or apart, space and cyberspace provide means of a continuous, global power projection unlike what is available from the traditional domains.

The perpetual use of space and cyber assets has driven an on-going need for technological innovation unlike that experienced by more traditional domains. The Army, for example, may rely on a tank for forty years (albeit with equipment upgrades), but space and cyber require regular incorporation of new hardware and software to remain relevant in the fast-paced world of technological one-upmanship. This dependence on technology is a double-edged sword that both provides the U.S. armed forces with asymmetric advantages and provides our enemies with easily exploitable weaknesses. In the twenty-first century, our space and cyber forces have already faced serious challenges, and adversaries of the U.S have continued to develop advanced capabilities of their own. Anti-satellite missiles and satellite jammers are proliferating, and cyber actors, both state and non-state, have made their presence known. As long as the adversary continues to develop their capabilities, the U.S. will continue to insist upon rapid technological innovation, particularly in the space and cyber domains. This shift toward technocratic warfare is an acceleration of more traditional notions.

The global military presence that space and cyberspace enables and the breakneck pace of innovation contribute to an amount of uncertainty among actors that is atypical of the traditional domains. Land and sea warfare have established bodies of law in the Geneva and Hague Conventions and in the San Remo Protocol, respectively. These rules serve as an agreed-upon framework for “acceptable” behavior in warfare. But what constitutes an act of war in space or cyberspace? Beyond the important prohibition of nuclear weapons in space, there are not many clear answers. Cold War norms between the U.S. and the Soviet Union held that missile warning and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites were off-limits because a nation would likely view an attack on one of those assets as a prelude to nuclear strike, but no treaty codifies those norms among the international community. An absence of clear agreements increases the chance of misunderstanding and miscalculation. The Chinese, for example, may view an anti-satellite missile attack on an American satellite as a “shot across the bow,” but the U.S., with its historical biases, may view the attack as an overt act of war. Cyber warfare lends itself to similar troubling scenarios. Does a denial-of-service attack against a nation’s financial sector require regulation and to what degree? How do we respond if a nation infiltrates our critical infrastructure systems? The uncertainty of these situations requires a deliberate effort to redefine what constitutes war.

The military domains of land, sea, air, and even space are well established, and the domain of cyberspace is fast becoming so. The military’s relatively recent acknowledgement of its dependence on space and cyberspace assets, however, requires an organizational reevaluation of the global and continuous nature of war, of the unprecedented premium on technology in the application of space and cyberspace power, and in the uncertainty of what constitutes war in these domains. Complex questions about how to proceed in both domains must seek a balance between militarization and weaponization, and the success or failure of the United States in these warfare domains will ultimately depend upon the decisions of America’s military, elected officials, diplomats, industrial base, and maybe even on its adversaries.

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