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Cyberwarfare: let’s get used to it!

Cyberwar is that part of the conflict that is characterized by the use of electronic, computer and telecommunications technologies. The development of these techniques is speeding up to the point of leaving the mere IT perimeter, as it will also have a very strong impact on traditional maneuvers. Precisely for this reason, investments in the race for primacy in Artificial Intelligence are essential to influence military tactics and logistics.

Il post di Leo Kelion sul sito della BBC

As explained in an article by Leo Kelion that appeared on the BBC website, artificial intelligence will be necessary for the ” “compress decision time frames”” of military responses. High-level military leaders have warned that the United States could  “lose its military-technical superiority in the coming years” if China overcomes it by adopting AI-enabled systems more quickly.

However, remaining on the level of cyberwar proper, the indiscretion reported by journalists David E. Sanger, Julian E. Barnes and Nicole Perlroth of the New York Times deserves attention, according to which in the next three weeks, in response to the damage caused by the cyber attack linked to the Solarwinds case, a series of clandestine actions will be launched through Russian networks that should be evident to President Vladimir V. Putin and his intelligence and military services, but not to the rest of the world.

“The White House is undertaking a whole of government response to assess and address the impact” of the Microsoft intrusion, the statement said. It said the response was being led by Anne Neuberger, a former senior National Security Agency official who is the first occupant of a newly created post: deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies.

Dall’articolo del NYT
The article on NYT

Jake Sullivan, who leads the Homeland Security Team, said in the interview in question that a tactical attack is looming, “a series of measures that will be understood by the Russians, but may not be visible to the wider world” and that these are “actually the most effective measures in terms of clarifying what the United States believes is in and out of bounds and what we are ready to do in response.”

It is therefore not a simple retaliation but a real IT reprisal.

So is cyber reprisal comparable to classic reprisal?

In this case, in fact, we are in the presence of two states, the USA and Russia, in a condition of latent conflict.

Of course, we should not expect a declaration of war, an instrument, that of the “declaration”, which the US has not practiced since entering the war against Bulgaria during the Second World War. However, it is singular how the lack of a real declaration of war has been replaced by an indiscretion leaked through the press. All in all, this is a much more transparent and publicized practice than that of the reprisals that took place during the recent bombings in Syria.

International law, however, does not contemplate retaliatory actions of this type and therefore it becomes complex to establish the boundaries of legitimacy.

Similarly, as is the case when reprisal is justified at the UN Security Council, we at least hope that the data relating to the cyber attack suffered in the Solarwinds case will be made public.

According to the practices of current war law, retaliation is considered legitimate if the following conditions are met:

  1. The reprisal must take place as a relationship between warring states: that is, the responsibility for the illicit act that generates the reprisal must be attributable to the state that made the offense (and not its innocent citizens); furthermore, the exercise of retaliation is directly up to the State whose rights have been violated by the aforementioned unlawful act.
  2. It is necessary that the act, which caused the reprisal, be considered unlawful under international law of war; among the acts considered illegal are those mentioned in the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, which provides clarifications on what are the “means and methods prohibited by law or international conventions, or in any case contrary to military honor”.
  3. Before the reprisal can be carried out, it is necessary that the injured State has ascertained who the perpetrators of the offense are, or at least that it has investigated to try to find out.
  4. Finally, it is necessary that the extent of the reprisal is strictly proportionate to the offense, so that the damage inflicted through the reprisal itself remains within the exact limits of the damage previously suffered by the state that puts it into place.

We have few doubts regarding the actual fulfillment of conditions 3 and 4, just as we can assume that even point 1) is practically satisfied. What is missing, however, is an international regulatory framework such as the one mentioned in point 2).

In fact, the reality is that what we are witnessing would already be a counterattack war operation, conducted with weapons other than the classic ones: in fact, it is already in effect a war and should be regulated as such.

We expect international fora to carefully define the limits of this practice as soon as possible, which by now will increasingly become part of hybrid warfare operations.

Otherwise the risk is that this type of attack will not seem so different from the worst state terrorism

Update – April 11th: Iran says electrical problem in atomic facility is act of ‘nuclear terrorism’

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