A panel of cyber experts gathered by the Atlantic Council last week discussed the outcomes of modern warfare and pointed to the likelihood of increased coordination between cyber and kinetic forces.

Michael Martelle – a Cyber Vault fellow for the non-profit National Security Archive – argued during the April 20 event that the most efficient use for cyber during a war is to provide targeting support for kinetic action.

“There is actually an abstract, ideal, efficient application of cyber in combination with kinetic,” Martelle said. “The question needs to be: in what certain situations is disruptive cyber a more efficient use of your resources than disruption by kinetic means? And I think there are three general times when those could occur.”

“The first is when the target area is lying beyond your kinetic reach,” he explained. “Another possibility would be if you have the opportunity to create aggregate cumulative degradation.”

Martelle continued, adding, “The final example of disruptive application that I can see is when you are able force a verifiable action from the adversary.”

“The most efficient use of computer network access in a shooting war is to provide targeting support to kinetic strikes. In war you’re trying to kill people and break things,” he said. “Cyber is not usually going to be the best tool to permanently break things or to kill people.”

Fourteen months has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine, and cyber experts have been trying to decipher how this historic event will change modern warfare of the future. On both sides of the war, non-state actors – like industry and third-party entities – have jumped to action in aiding with cyber efforts.

“We’ve also seen non-state actors directly involved in breaking things in this conflict,” JD Work, a professor at the National Defense University’s College of Information and Cyberspace, said. “A non-state group of civilian actors very likely influenced the course of that front, and that’s something we’re not quite used to seeing.”

“We’ve seen a number of international firms jump in on the cybersecurity front to help provide analysis and malware, to provide intelligence support to understanding adversary actions,” he continued. “The Russian side has very much believed that those players are active participants in this conflict.”

All the panelists were clear in stating that the cyber effects of the war in Ukraine cannot be known until the conflict is over and historians and other experts have been given the chance to study it. They cautioned against drawing conclusions too early, and hope that analysts will continue to be transparent about what they don’t know.

Despite the war not being over, it’s clear that the conflict will change the role that cyber plays on the battlefield in the future.

“We had 2014 – we had the Ukrainian power grid taken down,” Army Cyber Officer Maggie Smith explained. “I think the assumption was that both Ukraine and Russia had learned from that so that something bigger, better, more impactful should be expected if they do this again.”

“Now that it’s still going on 15 months later, we’re presented an opportunity where we have this horrible conflict that’s going on, but it’s a great research opportunity to better understand where and how cyber can be more effective” on the battlefield, she said.

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan