The art of war has evolved hand in hand with humanity’s technological progress and, as a consequence, its domains have widened. Over the course of history the land domain was joined by the maritime domain, first on and then below the surface, the air, electronics, space and now cybernetics.
This latest battlefield takes the universally recognised name of Cyber Warfare, and in order to understand its importance not only in modern conflicts but also in our day-to-day lives it is most illuminating to start with some considerations set forth in the National Cyber Strategy, a document drawn by the US administration in 2018 because what happens on the other side of the Atlantic is often a precursor of changes that involve the entire western world.
The introduction states that “cyberspace has become fundamental to American wealth creation and innovation. Cyberspace is an inseparable component of America’s financial, social, government, and political life”. The advent of the internet and the revolution that has accompanied it has involved not only private actors but also governments: the increasing dependence of many aspects of our daily lives, even before those relating to Defence, on an “open” and interconnected global system, has posed increasingly complex problems concerning its security.
It is no coincidence that in the latest Italian defence planning document the concept of cyber security is placed alongside that of energy security: energy networks must be protected in cyber space even before they are safeguarded on a physical level, because it is precisely in the cybernetic domain that the greatest dangers of attack exist.
In a world increasingly connected by networks where data is transferred almost instantaneously, where we are turning decisively towards the “internet of everything” thanks above all to 5G and 6G networks, where artificial intelligence is entering our everyday lives and is allowing the gradual removal of the human factor from decision-making areas, it becomes fundamental, if not vital, to ensure not only the safety of these new technological tools and assets, but also to bring the threat into this new domain in order to ensure a “proactive” form of security that pre-emptively targets the sources of possible threats by inhibiting, blocking or temporarily limiting them.
This could therefore be a general definition of Cyber Warfare: the measures taken by States to secure their “online” electronic networks and strategic infrastructures, to which must be added cyberattacks against the same structures by states or non-state bodies such as terrorist organisations or private actors.
It is a battle involving, as already mentioned, both the civil and the military sector: the dependence of Western countries on an interconnected, open, globalised IT network system imposes the need for States to secure their own civilian networks and databases through tools and methodologies borrowed from the military field: the ICT / C4 (Information, Communication, Technology / Communication, Command & Control, Computer) and cyber domain must be consolidated and secured through synergy between the worlds of civil and military research.
If from a civilian point of view it is vital to guarantee energy security, or the security of financial databases or simply personal data as it is in the interest of a private body to protect its “industrial secrets”, from a military point of view an additional risk factor is posed precisely by the new net-centric structure of the armed forces. Today the physical battlefield is managed in a coordinated manner both through the real time sharing of intelligence data collected during the course of the action, and because the sharing of information takes place widely and involves every single structure present in the theatre: from the soldier who through a small portable device can keep in touch with his command, or by the other means present including drones (to the point of commanding them or receiving live information from them), to the tank, the fighter-bomber, the naval unit or the satellite instrument.
A new way of “waging war” has been born which is developing on an extensive IT architecture, with different terminals, and therefore each terminal potentially represents a possible intrusion point for the enemy. This is why a substantial part of Cyber Warfare concerns precisely the security of military networks and is waged not only by the defence sector in the strictest sense of the term but presupposes concerted and continuous action between the state and private entities.
To further clarify the concept, we report another passage taken from the National Cyber Strategy which reminds us how “Cyberspace is a fluid environment of constant contact and shifting terrain. New vulnerabilities and opportunities continually arise as new terrain emerges. No target remains static; no offensive or defensive capability remains indefinitely effective; and no advantage is permanent”.
Just because it is a fluid environment, the threat is constant. The most classic attempt to spread computer viruses in systems and databases aimed at blocking them for the purpose of extortion, so-called ransomware, is accompanied by attempts at “piracy” for the purpose of espionage and data theft, blocking or sabotaging of energy and water networks, or simply disabling an internal local network such as Defence or parts of it. Without forgetting the problem of information leakage produced by the more or less involuntary diffusion of apparently unimportant data but which in a given context can become sensitive information. The most emblematic case of how dangerous this threat to military or national security can be is represented by what happened in January 2018 when the information collected by a simple fitness monitoring app made it possible to geolocalise secret installations in Russia, the United Kingdom and military bases in the United States, Syria or Afghanistan.
Cyber threats are growing exponentially, as reported by all national and supranational bodies (such as ENISA) responsible for monitoring cyber space, and transcend geographical borders: even States that in terms of conventional armaments do not represent an impending threat can become so in the cyber world by destroying databases, manipulating data and sabotaging networks and systems.
This type of action therefore represents the key to success in a conventional conflict fought in accordance with the dictates of the hybrid war: until a few years ago the victory on the battlefield was gained by those who possessed dominion over the air but today, when even planes are increasingly connected to the network, if you do not have an advantage in the field of cybernetics it is very unlikely that you will secure victory.