Book Review: For a Cybermilitary, the Next War May Be a Click Away

China scholar Adam Segal’s latest book delves into the geopolitical and economic implications of cross-border cyberattacks.

If the world’s powers ever face off in another war, it’s likely to be fought not with tanks and ground troops but with malware and phony tweets. Such is the premise of The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age, an intriguing study coming out next week by Adam Segal, a China expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The militaries of the U.S., China and Russia are fully engaged in online warfare, and Germany, Brazil and Israel also are unholstering their own virtual sidearms. Meanwhile, the world’s powers see cyberspace as the next military frontier. They’re ramping up their investments in online spying and high-tech sabotage. Despite cuts to overall defense spending in the U.S., Segal notes, the Pentagon has boosted its budget to improve its cyberarsenal. “The conflict in cyberspace will only become more belligerent, the stakes more consequential,” he writes.

This new era of virtual warfare threatens to make international relations ever more ambiguous. When geopolitical disputes were settled the old-fashioned way, soldiers wore uniforms advertising their allegiances. But in a cyberwar, no one is quite certain if they’re under attack or who’s responsible.

Segal points to numerous cases of cyberattacks of murky provenance. The Islamic State was first blamed for a 2015 hack against a French TV station, but further investigation revealed that perhaps the true aggressor was Russia. A 2014 online onslaught against U.S. banks might have been launched by Russia retaliating against U.S. sanctions — or it might not have been.

Further complicating matters, cyberwarfare lets tiny, distant nations deliver strikes against the giants, as North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 showed. With the Internet connecting billions of people, oceans and mountain ranges don’t provide the same protection they once did.

“Physical space matters much less in the cyber age, when attackers can act from anywhere with access to a modem or a smartphone,” Segal writes. Though this new age of virtual warfare isn’t all bad, he concedes: The Internet tends to even the playing field. For instance, Ukraine’s military is no match for Moscow’s might, but Ukraine’s hackers won a victory in late 2014 in a virtual skirmish with Russia’s Interior Ministry, leaking documents concerning Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.


What’s more, worms and viruses wreak havoc in cyberspace, but for superpowers worried about international optics, hacking boasts one huge virtue: no civilian corpses. Take the example of the now-famous Stuxnet computer worm, deployed by U.S. and Israeli forces to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel had asked then-president George W. Bush to drop bunker-buster bombs on Iran’s nuclear research center. Bush declined, but instead, Segal writes, the U.S. agreed to unleash Stuxnet, which botched Iranian centrifuges but created no other damage in the physical world.

At least for now, cyberwarfare seems, to paraphrase that president’s also-president father, a kinder, gentler way to wage war. Still, Segal frets about the unintended consequences sure to accompany the cutthroat competition — and he notes that it’s possible to imagine a “cyber–Pearl Harbor” that would see commercial planes fall from the sky or power plants explode. “Militaries, not wanting to be caught flat-footed, are rushing to develop powerful cyber weapons without any agreement on how and when they might be used or even a deep understanding of the consequences they might unleash,” Segal writes.

For the moment, the aggression in cyberspace focuses on zeroes and ones rather than actual explosions. The costs are mostly financial. Sony, for instance, suffered $35 million in losses from North Korea’s incursion.

Indeed, the focus of cyberwar is mainly economic, and the cost-benefit calculus strikingly clear. Segal describes China’s efforts to steal U.S. defense secrets, pointing to Chinese hackers’ success at obtaining 630,000 documents relating to the C-17 and other aircraft. In contrast to U.S. taxpayers’ billion-dollar investment in developing the plane, the hackers’ effort required an investment of less than 450,000.

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