September 1, 2009  

Know thy enemy

The concept of cyberwarfare is not new. It started to creep into the mainstream media because of repeated attacks on military and economic computer infrastructures in countries around the world over the last few years. The attacks have been successful, which is the major reason why America is starting to pay attention. These incidents and others have led to the formation of the U.S. Cyber Command.

One explanation as to why others, predominately in China, may be a little further along in embracing cyberwar is that the West tends to operate along Clausewitzian lines of military thinking. The East, on the other hand, tends to move along military lines of thought developed by Sun Tzu. Clausewitz describes warfare in a physical sense in which he presents an image of two wrestlers, each trying to impose his will upon the other. It is primarily focused on using physical strength in defeating armies. Sun Tzu, on the other hand, describes warfare in a nonphysical sense in which a situation is allowed to mature, ultimately being won without fighting a physical war. Sun Tzu’s approach is primarily focused on attacking the enemy’s strategy.

When you understand Sun Tzu’s philosophical approach to warfare, you begin to see the reasoning behind the continuous attacks against U.S. computer assets. The Chinese and other Eastern peoples have been very efficient in terms of computer hacking and network attack. For example, there was a June 2007 attack that resulted in an effective intrusion on the Office of the Secretary of Defense network, in which a hacker was able to access sensitive information, copy it and send it back to himself. Then there was the July 4 cyberattack that was allegedly conducted by North Korea against various U.S. government and commercial Web sites. According to Business Week’s Moon Ihlwon, the attack was intended to “disrupt systems by deluging them with Internet traffic rather than penetrate them and obtain internal or classified files.” Additionally, Hans Elmar Remberg, vice president of the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, said, “Across the world the People’s Republic of China is intensively gathering political, military, corporate-strategic and scientific information in order to bridge their technological gaps as quickly as possible.” These attacks are examples of cyberwarfare that may be based on a philosophy that is more Sun Tzu than Clausewitz. Attacking an adversary’s strategy to disrupt operations or steal secrets is how the East fights.

The U.S. military, as well as its political leadership, places a great deal of emphasis on learning and applying the theories of Clausewitz, based on his writings in “On War.” Most of his theories revolve around the idea of using physical force to win a war. His primary focus was defeating an adversary’s army by physical means. Clausewitz sums up warfare as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” He also states that “to overcome the enemy, or disarm him — call it what you will — must always be the aim of warfare.”

His theories date from the 19th century, but still apply today. An example is his theory on “fog and friction,” which occur when “countless minor incidents — the kind you never really foresee — combine to lower the general performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal.” The ideas Clausewitz originated in “On War” follow a certain pattern of logic. They are action-oriented, seeking to accomplish a set goal.

Aristotle, between 335 and 322 B.C, completed his system (logic, or Organon) to make clear that logical decisions were based on a foundation of trustworthy knowledge. Aristotle was concerned with the material cause, the one physical world, which he explained was real and eternal and which consisted of matter and form free of a spiritual realm. He wanted to focus on physical reality in terms of what he could actually see and feel. From this standpoint, Aristotle explained that all forms or objects have a certain potential to become a full, perfect being. Aristotle said “everything that comes into being moves toward a principle, which is its end; for that for the sake which exists is its principle, and its coming into being is for its end.” The acorn has the potential and strives to become an oak; the timber from the oak has the potential to be used to build a boat.

Aristotle taught these concepts to Alexander the Great from 343 to 341 B.C., who used them to learn how to think in a logical way. Alexander’s approach to military planning was calculating, logical and had established goals to be accomplished. Alexander used this logic to conquer the empires of Assyria, Egypt and Persia; thus, the Greek concepts spread. Aristotle’s rational approach to logic and active approach to accomplishing goals has also had a significant influence on how the West thinks and rationalizes. It is one of the major reasons for Clausewitz’s approach to warfare.

It’s easy to see how Clausewitz was influenced by the Aristotelian concepts of logic. Actively setting goals and then setting out to accomplish them helped shape Clausewitz’s philosophical approach to answering his questions for why war is the way it is. For example, establishing an enemy center of gravity is the type of goal that is established and then actively pursued through physical means. It is a “military worldview” that the West, including the U.S., has developed and perfected. The East, however, does not think this way.

In the East, the military and its political leaders place a great deal of emphasis on learning and applying the theories Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Sun Tzu states that “those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.” Additionally, Sun Tzu writes, “Supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” To a certain extent, this approach attacks the enemy’s mind rather than his physical forces. The concepts in “The Art of War” follow a certain flow of thought that is not focused on seeking a goal to be accomplished. Sun Tzu counseled patience, thus allowing the process of transformation to gain an advantage over one’s enemy. This is not goal-oriented thinking, and it can be traced back to the ideals of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism.

Lao-tzu, 604-521 B.C., constructed a philosophical system called Tao Chiao (“Teachings of the Way”), displayed in his most influential text, the “Tao Te Ching.” The philosophy embodies the concept of achieving balance through “non-doing” (wuwei). At first glance, the concept appears passive, but it is not. It involves a continuous process of adapting to change and response to the natural course of events. This is the opposite of the Western approach of actively trying to force things to happen. This philosophical idea of adapting to change is expounded on by Samuel B. Griffith: “Just as water adapts itself to the conformation of the ground, so in war one must be flexible; he must often adapt his tactics to the enemy situation. This is not in any sense a passive concept, for if the enemy is given enough rope he will frequently hang himself.” According to Lao-tzu, for any sage-ruler to rule an empire effectively, he cannot have any desires that are action-oriented. These philosophical concepts were passed on to the military leader Sun Tzu, who in turn used them to develop and refine his own ideas on the art of war.

Where does all of this philosophical thinking lead us in terms of cyberwarfare? For one, it helps to understand why the Chinese and North Koreans place such a high level of importance on the execution of cyberattacks against an adversary’s strategy. When the Chinese attack strategy, they are attacking those systems which the U.S. uses to execute its Clausewitzian principles of war. For example, they will conduct cyberattacks against U.S. computer systems in an effort to disrupt command and control efforts which, in turn, can affect maneuver. Additionally, the Chinese have placed a great deal of emphasis on cyberwarfare for over the past 25 years, and they have developed their own theory, doctrine and order of battle for computer network operations (CNO). CNO forces are now integrated into People’s Liberation Army commands, and extensive cooperation has been established between government and criminal networks.

What about the future of cyberwarfare, and what could it look like?

Comparing Eastern and Western philosophical approaches with warfare illustrates why the East may be further along than the West in embracing cyberwarfare. The East uses cyberwarfare as a mechanism to attack an adversary’s strategy. This insight is foundational for the U.S. in creating innovative ideas to dominate cyberspace.

Larry and Andy Wachowski’s movie “The Matrix” presents a concept that leads to the theory of getting inside a system. The movie’s first frame is streaming code. The plot starts with a computer hacker whose alias is Neo. The reality is that Neo is not behind a computer screen, but hooked up to a mechanical tower that feeds off of humans to generate power that runs the Matrix.

The Matrix consists of human-created machines. The humans tried to destroy the solar-powered machines by darkening the sky. However, the machines outsmarted them, turning humans into an energy source. Neo is mentally inside the Matrix, which is being run by his and millions of others’ physical bodies. He thinks he is in a real world, but it is only a dream world that was created by the machines to keep the humans in a comatose state. This state of being in the system is real; if you die, you actually die a physical death, all the while hooked up to the Matrix.

Like “The Matrix,” military-programmed viruses are operating in another dimension within the real world, but it is one that we cannot see. However, what happens when we can see into cyberspace? What happens when we see a code moving in the open dimension of cyberspace that is about to attack a fortified system? Then we will have entered a so-called matrix. Codes, when they can be seen, can be destroyed before meeting the virtual fortress of the Pentagon’s firewalls. This virtual dimension is another battlefield, fought on another front: the virtual front. Codes can move to more sophisticated forms and take on real shapes within the system to protect themselves from destruction. The next phase is being able to actually create systems that see battle inside cyberspace, in real time. Similar to systems such as video teleconferencing, current operating pictures, and other monitors established to track current operations, the cyberbattlefield can be watched via a variety of means. All of these theoretical innovative ideas have great philosophical undertones that have helped to create and shape them. They have been influenced by the Western and Eastern philosophical approaches to engaging modern warfare and the concepts in movies such as “The Matrix.”

Cyberwarfare will continue to be an important aspect of warfare. It will continue to have great implications in terms of protecting U.S. assets such as infrastructure, secrets or the application of strategy. To a certain degree, the U.S. has some catching up to do in relation to its adversaries. Embracing Sun Tzu’s approach of attacking, over the past 25 years, the Chinese have developed their own theory, doctrine and order of battle for conducting cyberwarfare. The West has traditionally approached warfare from a Clauswitzian standpoint, and there has been a concerted effort to apply warfare via physical destruction of one’s army and less on disrupting an adversary’s strategy through cyberspace. Knowing where our philosophical approaches to warfare come from can help us understand where we need to go to take the lead on executing cyberwarfare. The future could be like the concepts in “The Matrix.” Future combat could operate inside a system or virtual battlespace. For the U.S. to embrace cyberwarfare, it must create innovative solutions that enter into cyberspace. There is potential for code to become so sophisticated that it could transform into sophisticated shapes of viruses that are more effective in attacking and defending itself. Systems could be created to track current operations within the cyberbattlefield and in real time. These means, and the merging of the Clausewitz and Sun Tzu approaches to warfare, will help the U.S. move to the forefront on the virtual battlefield. Once this takes place, the U.S. can effectively take the lead in protecting vital infrastructure, its secrets and its strategy in an effort to dominate cyberspace and win its wars.

Maj. Richard B. Davenport is a psychological operations officer assigned to Army Central Command at Fort McPherson, Atlanta, currently deployed to Kuwait. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or Defense Department.