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Posted on Jan 26, 2022 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

If You Want Cyber Peace, Prepare for Cyberwar. Book Review.

If You Want Cyber Peace, Prepare for Cyberwar. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

Cyberspace in Peace and War.  Author: Martin C. Libicki. Publisher: Naval Institute Press. 512 pages. Price $ 60.00

The headlines are dominated with the risk of cyberattacks against corporate and national entities. Is there a cyberwar looming over the horizon? Are you ready for cyberwar? How do you respond to a cyberattack? But hold on a moment – what exactly *is* a cyberattack? It clearly involves computers – but what is it and how does it fit into broader tactical and strategic operations? Would you like to know more?

You can turn to Martin C. Libicki’s recent book Cyberspace in Peace and War (2021, Naval Institute Press).  Dr. Libicki’s tackles the subject of cyberwar with an eye towards educating the reader as to the various types of cyber activities and how they fit into modern concept of conflict.

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It’s a well-organized book that starts with a brief history of cyber-attacks. You get a good summation of the broad types of attacks along with numerous real-world examples that might jog your memories of events from the past three decades. (I once spent part of a week assisting in damage control from the impact of the I Love You virus). This historical review imparts the view that both business and the military are ‘all in this together’ as a cyber-attack can just as easily target a corporation as a traditional military force.

Beyond the history, you’ll get a solid overview of the types of cyberattack activities ranging from the obvious Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), through cyberespionage to recent attacks designed to damage physical systems (Stuxnet being one of the better-known examples of this class of event.)

The heart of the book is a discussion of cyberwar. This is an engaging read in which the reader is presented with a discussion that blends IT activities with concepts on warfighting. It’s a thought-provoking discussion, as it takes classical concepts of attack and defense and wrestles with ideas relating to defensive strength, and the complexities of waging cyberattacks. I was left with the impression that the old Hollywood trope featuring a hacker madly typing lines of code to exploit a system is an outmoded view and that modern cyberattacks feature the planning and preparation on par with a military campaign.  

Cyberspace in Peace and War attempts to place cyberattacks within the continuum of conflict. Clausewitz is well known for his statement that ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means’. Dr. Libnicki discusses how cyberattacks may be viewed by nation-states, both as an offensive and defense tool. I found his contention that the offensive cyberattack is a more valuable too than defensive measures l to be the cyber equivalent of the old idiom that ‘the best defense is a good offense.’ 

Balancing that notion of practical effectiveness is the more philosophical discussion on when assaults within the cyberspace sphere may merit a kinetic response in the real world. It’s a debate in which policy-makers are likely already engaged.  Sun Tzu wrote “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” In the cyber arena, advertising your capabilities can deter your opponent before the first bot net is activated.

The element of advertising your capabilities and defenses reminded me of the naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany in the lead up to World War I. I saw this as viewing cyber tools as similar to the dreadnoughts and battleships that were the focus of policy – Britain’s need to demonstrably show her dominance of the sea through a very public building program was designed in part to deflect open war through the shared knowledge of capabilities.

Beyond the theory of cyber conflict, Dr. Libicki explores the cyber activities and strategies of Russia, China, and to a lesser degree Israel. The discussion here is in the context of historical cyber actions, as well as an attempt to define the policy goals of these actors.

Cyberspace in Peace and War is not a casual read. At times it can be a dense tome, by which I mean there is a lot going on between the covers of this book. But it’s also a rewarding read. The reader will come away with a good overview of the history of the various types of cyberattacks. In addition, you’ll have a conceptual framework to view how cyberattacks – and cyberwar – rank in comparison to the continuum of activities that constitute ‘policy by other means’.  Given that cyberwar will likely remain be with us for the foreseeable future, it’s critical that we understand the nature of cyberwar. There’s a lot to grasp, ranging from the nature of the battlespace to the ‘weapons’ and command control challenges to be managed and defining what constitutes a ‘proportional’ response to an attack.

Cyberspace in Peace and War is a timely book. Those with an interest in defense policy and the strategy and tactics of modern warfare will benefit from the ideas Dr. Libicki presents. It will be interesting to see if what happens in cyberspace will in fact remain in cyberspace or if cyberwar will end up as just one more tool in the arsenal of warfighters, but the concepts presented here will spur that debate and can may help shape strategy. What seems clear is that doing nothing is not an option. To paraphrase Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus “If you want cyber peace, prepare for cyberwar.”

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