war costs. In essence, devoting more
attention to disrupting enemy forces,
even, or especially, with early surprise
attacks, might be ethically acceptable
due to the reduced destruction that
The paradox is that the rise of cyberwarfare techniques in battle may
make the traditionally unethical notion of starting a war attractive, yet at
the same time cyberweaponry could
improve the efficiency, and thus the
morality, of the war-waging process
itself. The logical terminus of a world
replete with cyberwarfare would be an
era with more uses of force, though
they would be shorter and less destructive than traditional conflicts.
A key problem with this line of
reasoning is that it does not deal adequately with escalation. A nation
whose military is quickly debilitated on
the battlefield due to cyber strikes may,
instead of standing down or surrendering, respond with whatever weapons of
mass destruction it has. Indeed, some
nations might respond to their own
perceived vulnerability to cyber disruption by seeking to acquire nuclear, biological, or chemical arms. The threat to
use them might be subject to deterrent
counterthreats by the war initiator; but
those who have been attacked first generally hold the somewhat higher moral
ground when it comes to retaliatory
escalation. The best example of this is
the decades-old NATO policy of reserving the right to use nuclear weapons
in response to a conventional Russian
invasion of Western Europe. A similar
policy might well emerge in future efforts to cool the ardor of cyberwar enthusiasts, as in the new U.S. policy of
threatening to respond to cyberattacks
with conventional military means.
The military encounter with com-
puterization is playing out against
a backdrop that includes many tra-
ditional concepts—strategic attack,
battlefield close support, deterrence,
arms control, and “just war” ethics—
exposed now to troubling new wrin-
kles. But for all the complexities that
have emerged, there are still reason-
able paths forward. One could lead to
more cyberwarfare on battlefields but
few, if any, direct cyberattacks on so-
cietal infrastructures. This runs coun-
ter to the current emphasis among
military leaders from nations around
the world on the “strategic attack par-
adigm” but is a shift that might have
profound practical (and ethical) ben-
efits. It is also gaining traction among
leading scholars, two of whom, Peter
Sommer and Ian Brown, of the Lon-
don School of Economics and the
Oxford Internet Institute, respec-
tively, took a clear position against
the strategic-attack paradigm but ac-
knowledged the importance of cyber
operations on the battlefield: “Pure
cyberwar… is highly unlikely. [But] in
nearly all future wars… policymakers
must expect the use of cyberweapon-
ry…in conjunction with more conven-
tional kinetic weaponry.”
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i would like to thank the reviewers and editors for their
insightful critiques of earlier drafts of this article and for
their thoughtful suggestions regarding revisions to it.
John Arquilla ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of
defense analysis at the u.s. Naval postgraduate school,
Monterey, ca; he was, 2005–2010, director of the
department of defense information operations center for
excellence, also located in Monterey, ca.