MTE Explains: What Exactly Is Cyber Warfare?

For the millennia, our concept of war has been inspired by the countless battles in which people went head on and slashed each other into bits with sharp blades. The invention of the gun, in its own right, has ultimately shifted the way we picture war, with soldiers shooting each other from a distance in hopes of overwhelming the enemy and dwindling their numbers. In a way, most of the world fights in wars that involve physical violence. However, with the growing dependence of government institutions and citizens of nations around the world on the Internet, we’ve found a new arena in which to take our most dirty fights. Welcome to the world of cyber warfare.


In 2010, a man named Richard Alan Clarke – former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism for the United States – came up with a simple and elegant definition for cyber warfare in his book, Cyber War: He described cyber warfare as

actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.

The definition itself is very vague on purpose, covering not only the disruption of national institutions such as the NSA or the FBI, but also the infiltration of systems that everyday citizens depend on to go about their day-to-day business. My own personal definition is a bit simpler: a state of cyber warfare happens when the government of another country explicitly engages in a system breach or any other sort of infrastructure disruption outside its borders.

Man On A Bridge In Brugge, Belgium.

There are many ways in which another government can cause damage to the infrastructure of another nation. Luckily, they all fit into a small set of categories.

Espionage is used to describe an event in which a government performs a data breach. This is a very “soft” form of warfare since services are not often interrupted and data is not removed from the system. One such case is known as “Titan Rain.” The federal U.S. government has been breached for three full years in 2005. Although evidence left behind suggests that China may have been involved; no one is really sure who executed the attacks.

Service interruption is by far the most common type of cyber warfare. Hackers will perform a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that overwhelms government or private sector servers. This was the case in 2007 when Estonia suffered attacks on its parliament, banks, and many other organizations in the middle of a disagreement with Russia. In the worst case scenario, a government organization could go a step further and interrupt necessary civilian services such as the electrical power grid.

Sabotage happens when a group of individuals are planted by another government to cause as much damage as they can to the systems of their host country. This is a bit more rare in the developed world considering the amount of security measures in place to prevent such a thing from happening.


The question has been asked before: is cyber warfare eventually going to eliminate the foot soldier from the middle of conflicts?

In my humble opinion, I doubt that this is going to happen. Rather cyber warfare will just be a new weapon in the arsenal of a country’s military resources. The United States has been using countermeasures against enemies to jam their radars and stop their IEDs for a long time. Instead of replacing gun powder and steel armor, we are instead making it more effective by surrounding it with a myriad of useful technologies. Hacking will probably be a new military activity when developing or developed nations fight each other.

What’s more useful, cyber warfare or boots on the ground? Tell us in a comment!