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Cyberwar makes NPT useless?

Dr. Kalam, former President of India believes that nuclear non-proliferation treaties (NPT) have been made useless by the advent of cyberwar. He made this remark while addressing the students and faculty of the MGIMO University of International Relations. Cyber war would be more devastating for all the countries with networked financial and economic resources, he says. Interesting twisted logic. More on that later. He goes on to say:

Cyber war, with the speed of light can destroy whole economies and one cannot defend with the help of ICBMs and nuclear weapons. My diplomatic mission is how to make nuclear weapons useless!

Is it just me or did Dr. Kalam, by the twisted logic expounded earlier, just say that he is going to advancement of cyberwar his diplomatic mission?

Putting that aside, let us go back to the first remark made by Dr. Kalam that NPT has been rendered useless by threat of cyberwar. While I don’t know enough about NPT to judge its overall success, I think there is enough gyan floating around to say that cyberwar just does not invalidate or make useless conventional warfare, especially the use of nuclear weapons. Let us examine some of these points.

  • There is not enough “umph” in cyberwar, notwithstanding the Stuxnet scare, to replace the power and influence held by the possession of or capability to produce nuclear weapons. Even if the consequences of engaging in cyberwar can equal that of nuclear weapons, one cannot imagine that many scenarios where it can exceed the destruction of nuclear war. The images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki are too well engraved in our collective conscience to allow us think otherwise.
  • Cyberwar has one very distinguishing factor compared to conventional warfare that works against it – the “one timeness” of its delivery mechanism. By this I mean the way the enemy is attacked using a specific vector. Nuclear bombs can be dropped again and again over the years by, say, aircrafts. Software vulnerabilities that are exploited for the conduct of cyberwar have the lifetime of single use. Stuxnet exploited four 0-day vulnerabilities but now that these have been identified, patching systems to inoculate against the attack becomes an easy job. You can deploy anti-aircraft guns to shoot down aircrafts that could deliver nuclear bombs, but there is no sure-fire way to protect against all of them.
  • The non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is, in theory, something that can at least be worked towards. Cyberweapons are too varied, too easy to proliferate (can fit into a DVD, if not a CD) and too hard to  control or supervise. Sure, the amount of investment needed to develop a Stuxnet-like malware could run into millions but the final malware itself takes hardly any effort to copy, replicate or even modify.
  • The logic that, because missiles cannot block cyber attacks one might as well as give up on trying to defend against or prevent further use, is flawed at two levels. As per prevailing theory, the fear of kinetic attack is one of the key deterrents against full-blow digital wars. While the rules of engagement for this new war front is still being formulated, any nation, if pushed hard enough to the corner, would consider responding with kinetic action against an act of digital aggression aimed at its interests.  At the other level, just because one cannot counter weapon 2 with weapon 1, it does not make sense to neither give up on developing weapon 1 nor given up on fighting against its spread. That would be pretty short-sighted.

The way I see it, cyberwar can only be part (a big part, but still a part) of a bigger war strategy. One can use cyber components to weaken the enemy, disrupts supply chain, create economic havoc, push back technology progress and what-not, but in the end the “no bullets fired” war is not really the war in conventional sense and does not have the same effect.


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3 Responses to Cyberwar makes NPT useless?

  1. Kannan October 22, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    I think crux of his argument is…Look here is a new asymmetric threat that levels the Goliath and make him within range of a smaller,less resourceful enemy.ANd that enemy dont need to procure complex technological components , precision engineering tools and procure like weapon grade plutonium to do dirty work.You could mess with air-traffic control software and make planes literally strand in the air running out of fuel,make trains collide,shut down electrical grid,any trojan introduced in stock exchange software would be catastrophic to investors etc.
    An argument that NPT is equivalent of nuclear weapons is silly.What is also abundantly clear is that a treaty like NPT is already defunct,but at the same time lots of disproportionate attention is given by group-think infected Western arms-control wonks.North Korea,Iran have already shown middle-finger to NPT.Pakistan is ratcheting up its weapons grade plutonium production of course for Wahhabi states like Saudis,Egyptians or Turks to counter Iranian Bombs..anyway you look at it its game over for nuclear non-proliferation.But tonnes of critical cyber security related developments like Chinese stealing F-35 steath jet designs,breaking into Indian Strike Corps computer networks and stealing our sensitive documents about network centric warfare like ACCCS are being overlooked.The political environment is unsuitable for using nuclear weapons in the world and that country will be a globally isolated after its use.Even Al-Qaeda will think twice before using N-weapons..though they do a lot of bluff about using it.



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