What Good Are Acts of War If You Don’t Get Credit For Them?

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Big-thought-thinker Martin Libicki has long focused his attention on cyber warfare. But now the Rand Corp. senior scientist is studying what he calls non-obvious warfare, of which cyberwar is only one part:

Innovations, both technological and organizational, over the last few decades have created a potential for non-obvious warfare, in which the identity of the warring side and even the very fact of warfare are completely ambiguous.

…Libicki writes in the fall issue of the Air Force’s Strategic Studies Quarterly.

The Stuxnet computer virus, which crippled hundreds of centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear-development program, is perhaps the most recent example of non-obvious warfare. Others, in addition to such cyber war efforts, include space warfare, electronic warfare, drone warfare and the always exciting “sabotage, special operations, assassins, and mines” catch-all category.

“Non-obvious warfare stands starkly in contrast to, say, a tank invasion across the German-Polish border, an event unlikely to spur questions such as whose tanks are those…and why are they here?” he writes.

Libicki chalks up the pluses and minuses of such anonymous ways of waging war and argues that “such techniques corrode both military values and diplomatic norms.” By definition, they have to be carried out by small, secretive groups, and are better-suited to authoritarian states than democracies.

Libicki concludes:

Nations would react (even more than they do now) to suspicions rather than actual substance; attackers might be credited/blamed for far more than they actually merit. In too many countries, anything that seems askew is blamed on the United States (or Israel) and their ubiquitous and omnipotent intelligence agencies. Part of their polities’ maturity entails improvements in their ability to distinguish fact from fantasy; evidence that such fantasy had a kernel of truth behind it would hardly facilitate the maturation process.”

Nonetheless, that Stuxnet bug — which David Sanger of the New York Times reported in June was a joint U.S.-Israeli creation – turned out to be pretty nifty.