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How an Organized Cyber-Attack on Civilian Infrastructures Could Tip the Balance of Power in Traditional Wars?

Introduction

In today’s world, the cyber space, or cyber world, is taking more importance with every passing minute. Indeed, when a couple decades ago, only a very few advanced governments and civilian structures were using digital means and set-ups. Nowadays, most infrastructure heavily rely, if not only, on cyber to operate correctly. But this comes at a price. A price that the world is still yet to fully comprehend and that is almost unknown to the general public. 

Indeed, what would happen in a technologically advanced first world country if a seemingly less technologically advanced nation, was to strike it with a destabilizing cyber-attack before engaging them physically in a traditional open style of warfare? Will all the technology and well-thought Infrastructure and responses still perform efficiently? As well as they would have if such an attack would not have happened previously? As one could see in the Russian cyber-attack on the Ukrainian power-grid (Sullivan, J. E., & Kamensky, D. 2017), such a scenario is not so far-fetched.

organized cyber-attack on power grid

Analysis

This article will analyze how a well-planned and organized cyber-attack on civilian Infrastructure could potentially tip the balance of power during a Traditional Physical War. Therefore, rejoining the two Cyber Arena and Physical Wars topics. It is to understand how they would correlate and complete each other in a real-life conflict.

It will show that if used efficiently, a cyber attack on civilian infrastructure, voided of sufficient preparation by the enemy, ‘most advanced’ state, could serve to create enough chaos to allow the attacking nation to achieve most of its objectives, or at least take the advantage, before the defending country will be able to fully mobilize.

cyber attacker at work

Cyber-Attack Overview

In the first part, this article will quickly go through the events in the said Russian led cyber attack and see how it came to an end. Then try to approach and understand what might have happened if such an attack would have been made in preparation of an actual physical invasion of Ukraine by the Russian forces. And finally, try and answer the question by a quick overview of the process to see if such a complex attack could be used to efficiently tip the balance of power between two States of relatively even strength if used successfully.

Case Scenario: Cyber-Attack Made In Preparation to the Invasion Of Ukraine By The Russian Forces 

On December 23, 2015, a 0-day cyber-attack (Bilge, L., & Dumitraş, T. 2012, October), or the first successful one of its kind, targeted the Ukrainian power grid. Hence, efficiently putting out of power an important chunk of the territory before anyone could do a thing about it. Thus, the attack would later be attributed to Russian-Federation hackers working for the Russian Security Services (Ukrinform. 2015, December 28). Even though the Government itself never actually did take responsibility for it.

It took place following a few steps. Firstly mainly through Spear phishing operations in order to gain access to the Ukrainian leading power company’s ‘oblenergos’ networks using the BlackEnergy malware. Eventually, the hackers ended up turning off the grid. Followed by a wider hacking campaign on different infrastructures to avoid the grid’s relaunch through informatics and cyber means. (Case, D. U., 2016). 

The attack, therefore, successfully attained stage 1 and 2 of the Cyber Kill Chain. Resulting in totally disrupting the grid by completing the hack. But thankfully, the grid was not entirely automated. Luckily, a manual switch was left. Hence, making the workers able to relaunch the stations by turning it on manually instead of through cyber means. Thus, showing that having a manual back-up for these kinds of infrastructures, even though being ‘old school,’ might still be a must even as technology further advances.

cyber-strike ready to launch

What Would Have Happened If Such a Turn Of Events Would not have Occurred?

But this kind of intrusion, even though eventually and relatively quickly thwarted and without further consequences, does raise some interesting questions. Indeed, what would have happened if Russia would have had decided to attack the country at the same time. Besides, if instead of attacking only one civilian Infrastructure to show what it was capable of, it would have decided to go forth with a fully extended cyber-campaign on such infrastructures to destabilize the country enough to allow its ground military forces to take advantage and advance on the territory.

Although it is safe to assume that Russia would still win a traditional military confrontation regarding the relative balance of power, it would probably not do so without heavy casualties. Especially in the instance of the Ukrainian Government’s calling its other allies to the rescue. Maybe even the more powerful and advanced European Union -EU- states, and the United States. But, as this cyber-attack proved, even a short term, highly-focalized cyber-strike can easily incapacitate a country for a short while without having to take credits for it or even result in actual violence. Thus, and if what can prove no actual damages or injuries resulting from the attack, a targeted country could not even threaten to bring the country in front of the International Court of justice. 

online defense preventing cyber-attackers

Cyber-Defense During A Cyber-Attack

Following this, it is important to point something out inside the cyber-world. Indeed, even though no organization is fully immune to cyber-attacks on its digital infrastructures. And the 0 cyber risk is non-existent due to the always progressing technology and exploits that can always be found in any advanced cyber-defense system. It is still considerably harder to contravene the security and defense mechanisms of a military cyber-infrastructure than a civilian one. This can easily be seen in multiple occurrences, where easily avoided attacks were very much successful in the civilian infrastructure sectors due to human error. If one famous example only, the WannaCry attack on the United Kingdom -UK- Healthcare system, that would never have happened if the civilian sector updated its software and therefore closed the door to the exploit. (Subodh, S., 2019).

Cyber-attackers on civilian infrastructure's system

What Could Be The Effects of Such A Cyber-Attack?

In such a confrontation, a coordinated and planned cyber-attack from the Russian hacking teams on the civilian infrastructures of Ukraine could have devastating effects. Specifically, on its capabilities to coordinate an efficient military response and deployment to stop a Russian military invasion. For instance, and as seen in this scenario, by turning off the country’s power continuously, for a few days. Even maybe expend their operation by cutting off communications countrywide and the country’s access to the internet. Or theoretically, simultaneously, also disconnecting flight plans, and civilian radars and aviation towers in the country. All this, if done successfully, would create major chaos inside the country. It would greatly reduce the ability of the State to coordinate a response to the attack.

Maybe even delay its overall time of reaction and understanding that an actual attack occurs for a few hours, a game-changer when talking in military terms. Hence, this could have been done before the cyber-age – triggering countrywide blackout through the means of a nuclear bomb explosion in the upper atmosphere above the country. (Dupont, D. G., 2004). But contrary to such an overwhelming display of nuclear power, a targeted cyber-attack would have a lot less implication in the international community. And be open to much fewer consequences on retaliation levels from neighboring countries that would be collaterally affected, international players and stakeholders, public opinion and outcry, future legal prospects, and overall consequences in the appreciation of the events. 

The impact of an organized Cyber-attack

What Will Be The Impact Of Cyber-Attack On Civilian Infrastructures?

Furthermore, such a targeted cyber-attack on civilian Infrastructure could have a greater reach and offer even more benefits to the attacker. The offensive country would have been aware that an attack on the latter would be followed by the mobilization and sending of troops by any other powerful world powers. For the Western EU countries, either in the neighborhood of further abroad, for the US, and US troops stationed in Europe. A targeted Cyber-attack on the same or other kinds of civilian infrastructures in these foreign countries could be the answer to this struggle. To avoid immediate retaliation from such powers and delay immediate consequences, one could remotely attack their civilian infrastructures on a smaller scale. Therefore, delaying their response time and forcing them to focus on dealing with their immediate problems rather than sending troops abroad to stop a distant conflict. 

Since Ukraine is still not a full NATO member (Fagan, M., & Poushter, J. 2020), a direct attack on it, absent immediate steps taken by the western powers, would negate a further escalation of the conflict into an international conflict of the West against Russia following the NATO charter on collective defense. (Rupp, R. 2000).

Cyber-attacks on civilian infrastructures pre-emptive to war

Cyber-Attack: What Are The Possibilities of Such Actions?

The possibility of such actions is brought forth by two very crucial settings of the cyber world. The absence of actually established borders (Czosseck, C., & Geers, K. 2009), and the very high difficulty and even almost impossibility to reliably trace back a cyber-attack to the actor of such attack (Burkadze, K. 2015). Therefore, what could use the perfect tool of ‘behind enemy lines’ and advanced disruption in such a delicate situation regarding International Laws and agreements. The attacking country might have to face retaliation later down the line, by then most probably legal or economic. Moreover, when what can make the connection between the attacks on farther soil and its actors. But most likely not in time for any efficient, if any, military, one that would influence the immediate outcome of the conflict at hand.

cyber-attacks during wartime

What Would Happen With Two States of Similar Strengths?

When it comes to two States of similar strength, the same process could be thought of. And therefore, a focused and well-implemented cyber-attack on the civilian Infrastructure of the opposing State could have catastrophic consequences for its military defenses. Before the victim manages to recover and organize itself enough to pose a real threat to the advancing forces, the attacking country working at creating chaos, countrywide has greater time to establish advanced positions. Even succeed in realizing the entirety of its military objectives. For this point, it is very important to remember that in today’s world, wars are mostly waged for limited military and territorial gains. Not to fully integrate a country into another nation’s territory, but rather get an agreement or control over a specific region.

cyber-attacks and cyber security

Final Thoughts

If one can ask, what would have happened if the manual switch that stopped the cyber-attack on the power grid in Ukraine was no longer there? How long would therefore have the power been out without the possibility to restore it? Thus, this shows that in our actual time, although technologically advanced countries are still at an advantage, they are at the same time way more prone to cyber disturbances than other ‘less’ technologic nations. That could use this de-facto statement to tip back the balance of power to equilibrium if not in their favor.

Conclusion

One could say that with the world and country of all technological advancements, and especially with the most advanced ones, a well-planned and organized cyber-attack on civilian Infrastructures could tip the balance of power during a Traditional Physical War. The cyber-attack – being the ultimate tool of disruption. It could create enough chaos countrywide in an ill-prepared opposing nation to allow traditional military means to take a decisive advantage in the confrontation. Hence, by delaying an efficient, coordinated military response of the attacked nation. 

Therefore, allowing the attacker to successfully achieve its objectives while staying clear of struggling with the heavy defense opposing military cyber network infrastructure. Even eventually managing to delay the defender military allies’ response until it is too late to respond in time. Or at least giving the attacking State more breathing room at the start of the conflict before dealing with additional powers on the ground. 

As technology further evolves, what will probably see such statements as even more accurate. With the 5G and internet of things, any military component that would connect to a civilian network using a machine to machine communication might endanger the whole of the military cyber defense in the future. (Bush Center. Spring 2017.). Furthermore, and as to refer to the introduction of this article, while once, being the most technologically advanced country in any conflict would only be advantageous. In the cyber era, this statement is no longer unilaterally true but a lot more mitigated. 

Bibliography & Sources

  • Bilge, L., & Dumitraş, T. (2012, October). Before we knew it: an empirical study of zero-day attacks in the real world. In Proceedings of the 2012 ACM conference on Computer and communications security (pp. 833-844).
  • Burkadze, K. (2015). Cyber security and international law. Journal of Technical Science and Technologies, 4(2), 5-10.
  • Case, D. U. (2016). Analysis of the cyber attack on the Ukrainian power grid. Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC), 388.
  • Cyber Warfare: The New Front: Bush Center. (Spring 2017.). Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.bushcenter.org/catalyst/modern-military/sciarrone-cyber-warfware.html
  • Czosseck, C., & Geers, K. (2009). Borders in cyberspace: can sovereignty adapt to the challenges of cyber security. The Virtual Battlefield: Perspectives on Cyber Warfare, 3, 88.
  • Dupont, D. G. (2004). Nuclear explosions in orbit. Scientific American, 290(6), 100-107.
  • Fagan, M., & Poushter, J. (2020). NATO Seen Favorably Across Member States. Pew Research Center, 9.
  • Rupp, R. (2000). NATO 1949 and NATO 2000: From collective defense toward collective security. The Journal of Strategic Studies, 23(3), 154-176.
  • Subodh, S. (2019). Cybersecurity at the Intersect of Health & Healthcare.
  • Sullivan, J. E., & Kamensky, D. (2017). How cyber-attacks in Ukraine show the vulnerability of the US power grid. The Electricity Journal, 30(3), 30-35.
  • Ukrinform. (2015, December 28). Russian hackers plan energy subversion in Ukraine. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-crime/1937899-russian-hackers-plan-energy-subversion-in-ukraine.html

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