WASHINGTON — Adversaries of the United States will be able to use cyber operations as a way to achieve military and strategic advantages without running the risk of an all-out, more traditional major conflict, a new report suggests.
Cyber operations provide adversaries with “the ability to manipulate information and opinion in ways that have a coercive or disruptive effect, without the risk of open warfare,” the study said. That keeps them below the critical “use of force” threshold that provokes the risk of armed conflict and escalation, the report said.
Critically, the United States and other democracies know the threat but have yet to develop ways to counter it, the report said. “The United States finds itself now in a world where its soft power is diminished and its hard power less useful,” the report said.
The report, entitled “Cognitive Effect and State Conflict in Cyberspace,” was produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and released Wednesday. CSIS is a Washington, D.C., think tank.
“Information technology has reshaped international conflict,” the report said. “The 1990s vision that the end of the Cold War was a triumph for market democracy has proven to be an illusion. Several powerful trends, including the reaction to U.S. supremacy, the fraying of the international order created after 1945, and the political effect of information technology are reshaping international security.”
The report said Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are active in successfully using cyber operations in the so-called “grey area” to sow disruption in the U.S. and elsewhere. The “grey area” is usually defined as the period between peace and war, and where aggression is strong enough to be effective but not enough to warrant a traditional military response — leaving the U.S. and other flummoxed as to counter-measures.
“China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have well-developed military cyber capabilities and are ready to launch cyber operations combined with electronic warfare, anti-satellite attacks, informational campaigns and other unconventional tactics and weapons,” the report said.
“The intent will be to degrade the American ‘informational advantage’ in warfare by attacking communications and ISR (drone) assets and capabilities, to slow and damage American decision making and operations, and to create political uncertainty, turmoil, and dissent,” the report said.
The report said Russia established a policy in 2014 to exert coordinated pressure on foes “throughout the enemy’s territory in the global information space.
“The Russians know that the Western commitment to free speech makes it difficult to block their disinformation campaign—no one in America or other democracies wants the government to censor the internet,” the report said.
“Russia has had long practice with disinformation—some of the tricks they used in the 2016 U.S. election date back to the Czars. Neither the United States nor its allies knew how to defend against or respond to this kind of coercive effort,” the report said.
China directs much more of its effort to controlling its own population, while Iran and North Korea use cyber actions for coercive effect against those they wish to punish, the report said.
The report said that digital technologies are having the same impact as did the first “knowledge revolution” created by the printing press, which brought centuries of political turmoil. “Digital technologies have the same effect, but at a faster pace and with broader consequences,” the report said.
“Until some new model of governance can accommodate information technologies and their political effect,” the report said, “cyberspace will remain an arena our opponents are only too willing to exploit.”