While aviation became the third dimension in warfare and the medium of air propelled technology at break-neck speed, there was an ‘untapped’ medium which would, in a subsequent era, prove to be a major determinant in the outcome of a conflict. Unforeseen as a potent weapon and uncharted for the immense potential it harboured, the radio wave would prove that as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, so also ‘cyber warfare is mightier than the bullet’. In fact, one US Air Force Chief went so far as to say, “Dominating the information spectrum is as critical to conflict now as occupying the land or controlling the air has been in the past”.
Like aviation, the science of cybernetics has progressed in leaps and bounds, using the same medium to propagate and proliferate. In fact we, in the years gone by, have grown up from using old cigarette tins attached with a fine string to communicate between dormitories in boarding schools (to pass on ‘secret’ information) to smart phones today with real-time voice and data transmission. Have we straddled the system? Far from it, because the potential that this domain harbours, is far beyond comprehension. In fact, as it evolves, it throws up possibilities in myriad dimensions which seem to continuously multiply and unfold in ever-increasing possibilities. In short, cybernetics and its various applications have made the human dependent on this medium for virtually every function he performs in his daily routine.
The rapid evolution and expansion of telecommunication and computer technologies has spread like wildfire into all levels of human activity and societal functions, into organisational activities, economic transactions and most importantly, command and control infrastructure of the government and military. To the balanced mind, over-dependency on anything should light up the warning signs. A holistic look will indicate the likely vulnerabilities and the opportunities they provide to those with evil intentions. The kinetic potential of the cyber domain and the possibilities it throws up has not only been demonstrated but has actually been employed in support of operational and strategic objectives and have produced the desired strategic effects. Therefore, the cyber spectrum today can be classified as a major Centre of Gravity of any nation or its sub- components. Future warfare is likely to see each side attempting to achieve information superiority if not, information dominance against the other. Targeting information based systems, information based processes and computer networks will be the norm. Resultant target systems will comprise critical infrastructures which operate on interdependent networks interlinked and enmeshed at various levels, such as industries, institutions, command and control nodes and many more. Susceptibility will, in all likelihood, be sought in five broad domains:-
»» Energy. Natural gas resources as also petroleum refineries; nuclear power facilities and electrical power distribution grids are lucrative target systems.
»» Banking & Finance. The economic hubs consisting of banks, commercial and investment institutions and stock exchanges will be vulnerable.
»» Physical Distribution. Denial of the supply chain by disrupting road/ railway networks, air traffic management systems and oil/ water pipelines will have severe repercussions.
»» Vital Human Resources. With the huge dependency on computer controlled water/ electricity supply systems and activation of emergency services like ambulances and fire-fighting not to mention the command and control nodes where all decisions will be taken, all become vulnerable to attack.
»» Information & Communication. Possibly the backbone which supports all critical infrastructure, the telephone and computer networks and their respective servers, becomes the key domain to target.
While the battle-space seemed complete with the three physical dimensions of land, water and air being addressed, the intangible or tenuous factor which spread its tentacles across the canvas has emerged as possibly the most strategic game changer. “Soft Kill” it may be, but successful information dominance followed up by the “Hard Kill” elements is certain to ensure capitulation of the adversary. Set up the firewalls and train the CERT teams because the critical war-fighter of the next war will logically be a “nerd”.
Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji, PVSM, SC, VSM is a former AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.