Is Cyber War the New Cold War?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

Is Cyber War the New Cold War?


Cyberspace matters. We know this because governments and militaries around the world are scrambling to control the digital space even as they slash defense spending in other areas, rapidly building up cyber forces with which to defend their own virtual territories and attack those of their rivals.

But we do not yet know how much cyberspace matters, at least in security terms. Is it merely warfare’s new periphery, the theatre for a 21st century Cold War that will be waged unseen, and with practically no real-world consequences? Or is it emerging as the most important battle-space of the information age, the critical domain in which future wars will be won and lost?

For the time being, some states appear quite content to err on the side of boldness when it comes to cyber. This brazen approach to cyber operations – repeated attacks followed by often flimsy denials – almost suggests a view of cyberspace as a parallel universe in which actions do not carry real-world consequences. This would be a risky assumption. The victims of cyber attacks are becoming increasingly sensitive about what they perceive as acts of aggression, and are growing more inclined to retaliate, either legally, virtually, or perhaps even kinetically.

The United States, in particular, appears to have run out of patience with the stream of cyber attacks targeting it from China – Google and The New York Times being just two of the most high-profile victims – and which President Obama has now insisted are at least partly state-sponsored.

Although setting up a cybersecurity working group with China, Washington has also signaled it intends to escalate. U.S. Cyber Command and NSA chief General Keith Alexander signaled this shift of policy gears earlier this month when he told Congress that of 40 new CYBERCOM teams currently being assembled, 13 would be focused on offensive operations. Gen Alexander also gave new insight into CYBERCOM’s operational structure. The command will consist of three groups, he said: one to protect critical infrastructure; a second to support the military’s regional commands; and a third to conduct national offensive operations.

As cyber competition intensifies between the U.S. and China in particular, the international community approaches a crossroads. States might begin to rein in their cyber operations before things get further out of hand, adopt a rules-based system governing cyberspace, and start respecting one another’s virtual sovereignty much as they do one another’s physical sovereignty. Or, if attacks and counter-attacks are left unchecked, cyberspace may become the venue for a new Cold War for the Internet generation. Much as the old Cold War was characterized by indirect conflict involving proxy forces in third-party states, its 21st century reboot might become a story of virtual conflict prosecuted by shadowy actors in the digital realm. And as this undeclared conflict poisons bilateral relations over time, the risk of it spilling over into kinetic hostilities will only grow.

Muzaffer Ü.
April 23, 2013 at 21:38

There are two answer for this theory. First, it cannot be a cold war cause of multi-national threat, and secondly cyber war is not a defensive or preventive strategy. Cyber attacks mostly unpredictable and cause only on information. In same paces it is almost different from new way of war (asymmetric threat). But in the other hand both strategy has a disruptive effect on adversary. Consequently, cyber war have to consider as a unique.

Mike Z
April 23, 2013 at 03:57

Does war look like data exfiltration?

Allies spy on each other plenty.

Leonard R.
April 21, 2013 at 16:22

You're an American.  Congratulations.

Your Pentagon disagrees with you.

China has been waging war against the US on different fronts for a long time. It's past time for Americans to start fighting back. That's how I see it.  Dunno about you Mr. or Miz American. But I've actually been in war. I know it when I see it. 


April 21, 2013 at 01:53


I fail to see any proof of technology that has been stolen through data theft used in current products by China – you have to show evidence or you need to say you are speculating. I see plenty of reverse engineering and outrigh t copying, yes.That is business.

War is a dangerous thing. You can have any reason to have a war, including the sinking the USS Maine in Cuba, when there is no proof of Spanish involvement. So cyber-crime is as worthy of going to war as any. If you want to be a true American patriot and not the proganda arm of the neo-cons, then quit being an American 50-center. And yes, I am an American.

April 21, 2013 at 01:35


Name instances.

Emelio Lizardo
April 20, 2013 at 22:45

And we gave them all Stuxnet and Flame as blueprints for asymetric mayham.

April 19, 2013 at 10:50

Not just USA and China, cyber warfare attracts many third world countries with high computer literacy. Cyber warfare is very cheap comparatively, easily executiable, results can be instantly rewarding to the attackers and involves no risk to the attacker. These make it very appealing to developing countries. Unlike developed countries their law enforcement is not effective.

April 19, 2013 at 09:03

As I hit "Leave A Comment" my browser glitched and erased my post. LOL.

Basically, I believe cyber-warfare is nothing more than industrial espionage. Attacking a power grid does nothing as the hardware is still there and the software re-set [a thousand words packed in two sentences].

Leonard R.
April 19, 2013 at 06:12

"While there is no internationally accepted categorization of different kinds of cyber activity (individual states have varying definitions), it is self-evident that some episodes are more serious than others. NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) – a unit based, not by accident, in Estonia, which experienced a massive cyber-attack from Russia in 2007 – distinguishes between “cyber crime,”“cyber espionage,” and “cyber warfare.”

With all due respect, I think these are false distinctions. Cyber espionage should be viewed as an act of war. Cyber attacks are intended to both inflict national damage on the victim state and to benefit the aggressor state.  This is true even if a private corporation or a university are targeted. It's long past time for the US to go on offense here. 

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