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Cyber-war – the rhetoric of a disruptive and non-destructive warfare

Mariarosaria Taddeo

BBC news ( reported yesterday that the US Senate is about to appoint Lt General Keith Alexander as head of the U.S. Cyber Command ( This is a United States armed forces’ sub-unified command. The USCybercom, as it is abbreviated, manages USA cyber-warfare.
The existence of this command and the military career of the man who leads it prove one more time the importance that cyber-warfare is gaining in the contemporary political and military strategies.

Cyberwar is the new direction of warfare, just think about the cyber-attacks of Russia vs Estonia, or Russia vs Georgia, what did they involve?and the allegations between USA and China. Generally speaking cyber-warfare is the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) both as strategic tools and as weapons. Nowadays, thanks to ICT, battles are fought by highly mobile forces, armed with real-time information devices, as well as thousands of robots.

When talking about cyber-warfare, politicians, militaries and mass media refer to a new ‘quiet’ warfare, certainly bloodless, disruptive but not destructive as stated in the BBC article. In the words of Dr Kuehl cyber-warfare is “efficient, more effective, less damaging, less life-threatening than a kinetic weapon,".

This is a demagogic view, which attempts to cast the reassuring message that technologies have finally enabled the Human Kind to fight a bloodless, even peaceful and non-destructive war. Yet, it suffices to think about cyber-warfare for few moments in order for political and ethical concerns to arise.
Here are two of the ethical problems that lay underneath the surface of the non-destructive warfare.

1. Unmanned vehicles and robotic weapons can make conflicts virtually bloodless for the army that deploys them, but this could make war more “thinkable”, i.e. less problematic for the force that can use this technology. At the same time, cyber-attacks may require less organising effort, are cheaper than physical attacks and might be equally or more disruptive than traditional ones. All this makes it easier for governments, but also for criminal or terrorist organisations, to engage in “soft”, ICT-based conflicts around the world. So, paradoxically, the machines designed to save the lives of the combatants might increase the number of conflicts in the world and hence civilian casualties.

2. The dissemination of ICT and the increasing possibility of being subject to cyber-attacks might invite some governments to opt in favour of higher levels of control, in order to detect and defend their fellow citizens. This will have the direct effect of undermining the ethical rights of individual liberty, privacy and anonymity, which may come under sharp, devaluating pressure as a result of efforts to detect as early as possible hidden forms of cyber-attacks. See Michael McConnell’s statement ( in this respect.

Cyber-warfare is the new direction of warfare, once more technology provides Humankind with a new powerful tool. In my opinion, it would be a mistake to look at cyber-warfare in pessimistic way, as if cyber-warfare will provide the means for the end of the World, but it would be equally mistaken, if not worse, not to wonder about the new ethical problems that this warfare poses.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Cyberwar’s great fault is that it is hideously wasteful because it anaesthisizes the people of a country by not producing a very large number of human casualties (wounds, disabling wounds and deaths). The resources of the country are diverted to producing more cyberweapons and destroying as much material on the other side as is possible. This kind of dispute can last forever because it is furthered by persons who profit from this production and destruction. This leads to the impoverishment of countries and the death of people who cannot make it in an impoverished country.

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