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The Concept of Cyber War

Discuss about the Cyber War and Electronic Warfare for Techniques.

Cyber war refers to the act of using computer technology in order to disrupt the normal activities of state or an organization. This is a means of performing a deliberate attack on the information system for strategic and military purposes. A computer is used as a medium for a network based conflict that involves attacks that are politically motivated by a nation state against another nation state (Nicholson et al. 2012).  It is considered as an important weapon for political conflicts, espionage and propaganda. This is very similar to the physical war. However, the cyber attacks until now have not created any severe injury or loss of life unlike physical wars. It has not caused any direct damage to life and physical property and therefore it may not be considered as a war (Andress and Winterfeld 2013). Therefore, it is very interesting to evaluate whether cyber war can be considered similar to the physical war. This essay evaluates whether a cyber war will lead to the actual use of force and what changes would lead to transform a cyber war to become a physical war.

Physical warfare generally refers to the act of aggression between the opposing parties for a particular goal. In case of physical war, there is a probability of loss of life. On the other hand, in cyber warfare, a hacker in order to gain access to sensitive and confidential information or to destroy the same uses a computer or digital device. However, both physical war and cyber war is dangerous as a physical war is capable of destroying a country for decades, while a cyber war has a potential to destroy a country permanently (Shakarian, Shakarian and Ruef 2013). This can happen if the hacker targets the economy of the country. Cyber warfare is an act of espionage and it is hard to trace a hacker. The hacker behind the cyber warfare generally targets the system of other governments in order to gain the confidential information that can be used against the country in the cyber war (Dinniss 2012). The cyber warfare uses internet as a tool while physical war uses traditional weapons and bombs.

Cyber war can therefore be categorized as a long distance war targeting the territory of the enemy. Cyber war can be of different forms such as governmental attack where the hacker or enemy infects the system with malicious software, which can transfer the sensitive data of the government or can destroy it by the infection of worms (Krepinevich 2012). Here the question arises, whether the cyber war is really a war. Digital attack however, is one of the most alarming visions of the modern warfare as it has the capability to launch an attack sitting at a distant place from the enemy’s territory. By implanting malicious codes, the digital war has a capability of hacking the pacemakers of the aging world leaders and army commanders, derail the passenger trains or trains loaded with lethal chemicals by gaining control over the automatic switches (Rid 2012). With the increase sophistication digital techniques, it is not impossible for the cyber warfare to target and claim lives of the innocent people, and therefore, it is no less than a physical war (Kessler and Werner 2013).

Comparison of Physical War and Cyber War

Cyber war can be as deadly as a physical war. The recent example is the global ransomware attack by “Wanna Cry” ransomware that locked all the important files present in a computer system thus freezing all the activities and operations of different organizations including hospitals. People had to pay ransoms in order to unlock their files. This halted the operations of different pharmacies and hospital risking the lives of thousands of people (Mohurle and Patil 2017). Therefore, it can be said that cyber warfare is no less dangerous than a physical war.


The rules of the physical war has also adapted to the internet age, it is very difficult to understand who is responsible for a massive attack (Gervais 2012). However, planning and implementing a cyber attack is a time-consuming business ad it requires strategic and planned approach much similar to the physical wars. Hacking is the key skill to lay a cyber attack and researches prove that mistrust of the attributions makes hacking even easier.  The weapon used in cyber attack is computer code that has the capability of creating havoc in people’s life. Taking the instance of Wanna Cry ransomware attack, the weapon used by the hacker to launch this attack was stolen from the United States National Security Agency. The target of the Wanna Cry ransomware was the un-patched systems. The malware Wanna Cry has the capability to spread within the corporate networks even without user interaction thus making the attack a huge one (O’Connell 2012).

Therefore, it can be said that cyber war definitely leads to the use of force, however the “force” here is not similar to that of a physical war but consist of sophisticated program codes that is used to launch an attack. The digital war may launch a sneak attack against the financial markets that can cause a financial crisis (Stone 2013). Furthermore, the attacker can hack into the systems and plant a computer virus in the opponent’s computer systems. This can increase the scope of launching a network attack against the enemy that can result in disruption of the electricity network, mass media network, and telephone network of the enemy civilians. This may lead to the enemy nation falling into social panic and political crisis. Thus the “force” of cyber warfare although is as small as a computer virus, its effect can be huge.  

A cyber attack generally involves the deliberate and unauthorized insertion of a cyber weapon in a targeted machine to accomplish illegal tasks the programmer has engineered the code to perform. Cyber weapon on the other hand can be defined as a packet of binary computer code that is engineered to accomplish certain surreptitious tasks through the software-operated machines, which includes computers, servers, routers and industrial equipments (Buchan 2012). As an answer to the question, whether a cyber war can be synonymous to the armed force or not, it can be said that it is not the normal use of a device that makes it a weapon but the intent with which it is used and its effect. Any form of attack that can result in a loss of lives and extensive destruction of property can be termed as an armed attack. The measurement of the cyber attack can be on basic of the severity of the damage it cost on the people or nations and its immediacy (Hathaway et al. 2012). If a cyber damage is capable of causing a physical damage or injuries to a person, it can be termed as an armed attack. Therefore, a cyber warfare can be termed as ear only when it causes physical damage to the states people and property. A cyber war is more difficult to detect than a physical war. Therefore, more targeted and sophisticated attack has the capability to lead a digital attack in actual use of force.

Can Cyber War Lead to the Use of Force?

There are huge chances of a cyber war turning into a physical war in future. Now the question arises that what changes may lead to a cyber war turning into a physical war in future.  Although cyber war is an emerging concept in today’s world, many researchers consider it a significant component of future conflicts or physical wars.  Similar to the troops using conventional war weapons such as guns and missiles, in future, there is a high possibility that the hackers using the codes and programs to launch an attack on the infrastructure of the enemy will fight the wars. The cyber war has the capability to take a more dangerous turn in future by laying digital attacks on the vital infrastructure such as banking systems of a nation or power grid, that will give provide the attackers a way to bypass the traditional defenses of the country. This is because a cyber attack has the power to be launched from any distance and therefore it is very difficult to trace such an attack. Therefore, counter attack becomes impossible. The cyber war is more likely to target the computer networks that run the vital functions of a nation such as sanitation, food distribution and communication (Farwell and Rohozinski 2012). The only criterion that can lead a cyber attack to a physical attack is the significant loss of life and extreme destruction. This is the significant threshold of a cyber war as the international law states are permitted for using a force and defend themselves against an armed attack.  According to the researches, more than 30 countries are now developing the cyber attack capabilities including Russia and China. The tools that are generally used in a cyber war can be incredibly sophisticated or utterly basic. The tools and techniques used in cyber warfare generally depend on the effect an attacker is trying to create.


Computer technology is increasingly used in modern military organization and it can pose as both target and weapon for the organization. Countries around the world are therefore developing and implementing different cyber strategies in order to prevent and control the enemy’s command, military function, logistics, transportation and early warning. There is no international law as such that defines cyberwarfare as it is an emerging concept. However, it does not indicate that the law does not cover the cyber war. Different scholars are working on for years to explain how law can be applied for the digital warfare. Therefore, international community should prevent any type of cyber attack from creeping into the system by taking proper measures such as installing intrusion detection systems in the systems that contains confidential data. Tallinn manual is written document on the international law applicable to cyber warfare (Schmitt 2013).

Therefore, from the above discussion it can be concluded that there is a huge difference between the cyber wars and physical wars as far as cyber wars does not claim lives. If a cyber war targets or result in destruction of a country’s property or a loss of life, it can be considered so less than an armed war. It is complex to determine whether a cyber war have the potential to lead a physical war or not. However, with the increase sophistication of digital attack the cyber war becomes increasingly capable of targeting a sensitive system of a country that could freeze many important operation thus risking people’s life. The international community is acting on various strategies to prevent a cyber war from becoming a physical war. The major one should be minimizing the probability of an attack on a system by installing proper intrusion detection systems.

References

Andress, J. and Winterfeld, S., 2013. Cyber warfare: techniques, tactics and tools for security practitioners. Elsevier.

Buchan, R., 2012. Cyber attacks: unlawful uses of force or prohibited interventions?. Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 17(2), pp.212-227.

Dinniss, H.H., 2012. Cyber warfare and the laws of war (Vol. 92). Cambridge University Press.

Farwell, J.P. and Rohozinski, R., 2012. The new reality of cyber war. Survival, 54(4), pp.107-120.

Gervais, M., 2012. Cyber attacks and the laws of war. Berkeley J. Int'l L., 30, p.525.

Hathaway, O.A., Crootof, R., Levitz, P., Nix, H., Nowlan, A., Perdue, W. and Spiegel, J., 2012. The law of cyber-attack. California Law Review, pp.817-885.

Kessler, O. and Werner, W., 2013. Expertise, uncertainty, and international law: A study of the Tallinn Manual on cyberwarfare. Leiden Journal of International Law, 26(4), pp.793-810.

Krepinevich, A.F., 2012. Cyber Warfare. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Mohurle, S. and Patil, M., 2017. A brief study of wannacry threat: Ransomware attack 2017. International Journal, 8(5).

Nicholson, A., Webber, S., Dyer, S., Patel, T. and Janicke, H., 2012. SCADA security in the light of Cyber-Warfare. Computers & Security, 31(4), pp.418-436.

O’Connell, M.E., 2012. Cyber security without cyber war. Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 17(2), pp.187-209.

Rid, T., 2012. Cyber war will not take place. Journal of strategic studies, 35(1), pp.5-32.

Schmitt, M.N. ed., 2013. Tallinn manual on the international law applicable to cyber warfare. Cambridge University Press.

Shakarian, P., Shakarian, J. and Ruef, A., 2013. Introduction to cyber-warfare: A multidisciplinary approach. Newnes.

Stone, J., 2013. Cyber war will take place!. Journal of Strategic Studies, 36(1), pp.101-108.

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