When bits and bytes replace bullets and bombs

According to a study by the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU), last year’s coordinated cyber/military attack against Georgia could set the pattern for future conflicts. The cyberattacks have every appearance of the work of civilians, but their timing and the degree of coordination also indicate there was unprecedented cooperation and information sharing from the Russian military.

But one of the most interesting details of the Georgian campaign was what did not happen.

“The news media and communications facilities, which would ordinarily have been attacked by missiles or bombs during the first phase of the invasion were spared physical destruction, presumably because they were being effectively shut down by cyberattacks,” a summary report of the study said.

“One of the first things any invader does is shut down the media,” said Scott Borg, director and chief economist for the US-CCU, a nongovernment research institution. However, that did not happen in the case of Georgia. The cyberattacks had real consequences. The Georgian government and economy were hamstrung, the Russian military was aided, and people died in this conflict. “On the other hand, cyberattacks are more controlled and do less damage.”

Maybe we should be relieved that the Russian Army was able to triumph without having to resort to physically destroying networks, broadcast stations, banks and other infrastructure. After all, Georgia was spared much of the attendant suffering of such a campaign. The bits and bytes were more humane than bombs and bullets. But there seems to be something wrong about all of this. Sanitizing warfare is frightening.

“This is creepy,” Borg agreed. “There is no doubt about it.”

The Russians generally showed restraint in their cyberattacks, the US-CCU study found. “The cyberattacks refrained from carrying out the sorts of attacks that would have done lasting physical damage to the Georgian critical infrastructure, even though some of those involved in planning the cyber campaign may have had some idea of how to carry out such attacks,” it states.

The Georgian infrastructure was more vulnerable than ours, Borg said. “If you want to go after American infrastructure, it’s really quite hard,” he said. “It takes a high level of skill to attack ours. It wouldn’t in Georgia. And yet, they were not damaged.”

Back in the 1980s, the United States toyed with the idea of the neutron bomb, a nuclear weapon that could destroy populations while leaving their cities intact. Despite humanitarian arguments, the concept was abandoned because it seemed immoral to put a higher value on property than on human life.

Today we might be developing the ability to wage war without threat to life or property. Sure, we would still have tyranny and subjugation, but at least it wouldn’t come at the expense of destroyed buildings and dismembered bodies. That doesn’t sound bad when you see a headline about a Predator drone aircraft mistakenly firing a Hellfire missile at a family of innocent bystanders in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

And yet I’m having trouble accepting the concept. American Gen. William Sherman, who had a campaign in a Georgia of his own, said “War is hell.” And maybe it should be. As Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee said, “it is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it."

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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