Conversation: The Once and Future War


[Editor’s Note: There has been an exponential rise in cyberwarfare, highlighted by incidents on the Georgia-Russian border and the Stuxnet attack in Iran. Now, a new form of malware called “Flame” has revealed the sophistication of this new field of battle. Called the "perfect spy," Flame is 20 megabytes of cyberweaponry that copies files, records audio and video from the victims' own computers, and tracks every key stroke. When the “kill” module is activated, the worm wipes all traces of itself from the computer and is undetectable, even by computer technicians.

There is some evidence of its existence from June 2010, but no one can determine its exact age because of backdating by its creators. But the world is only beginning to learn about the first ever digital super-worm now. So far Flame has infiltrated computers primarily in Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and the Palestinian territories.

Of course, there is much speculation about its origins. Based on the regions that have been targeted, many believe it to be the work of countries like Israel, Great Britain, and the United States.

In the Fall 2011 issue, World Policy Journal sat down with Major General Jonathan Shaw, the head of the United Kingdom's cyberwarfare operations. Maj. Gen. Shaw discussed the future of cyber conflict, warning about the dangers of this new type of warfare.]

A Conversation with Major General Jonathan Shaw, CBE

Reading politics and philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford, might not appear to be the most direct route to the top of the British military.

But then, Major General Jonathan Shaw is hardly typical—though he is, with a nod to Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern major general. He is proud of his service in the Falklands War, which he describes as the last of the old-fashioned conflicts. Then came Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and a tour in Kosovo as commander of the Multi-National Brigade. Promoted to the rank of Major General, he pitched up in Iraq as commander of British forces. Based in Basra, his units defended one of the diciest fronts of the war. Throughout, he’s studied the changing shape of war, devising creative ways to respond to new challenges.

Today, at 54 years old, he’s been charged with managing the future of warfare—international security, global issues, and especially cyberwar—or as he prefers to call it, unrestricted warfare. There’s no one better qualified to explore the innovations of war on and off the battlefield. From the British Defense Ministry in Whitehall, General Shaw spoke with World Policy Journaleditor David A. Andelman and outgoing managing editor Justin Vogt.



World Policy Journal: Before the Georgian conflict, there was a whole burst of cyber activity along the Georgian-Russian frontier. This was a prelude, of course, to the actual warfare. But if the purpose of war is to disable the enemy from pursuing military action, and if you can do that without ever putting your own military in harm’s way, would that not be the preferred method—the new, innovative way—of pursuing warfare?

General Shaw:  It certainly is. This is a tool that a government can consider using, but we need to talk about the disincentives to using it—particularly the mutual dependence that all developed countries have on cyberspace. When you look at potential adversaries, you have to be very careful. What you do to someone else, they could do to you. Take the Stuxnet [a computer worm allegedly designed by Israel to disable the Iranian nuclear arms program]—the effects were not really quite what were intended. The idea that you can use cyberspace with any sort of real precision raises interesting questions for us. The potential for blowback is serious. I also want to dispel this idea of clean warfare which won’t cause the death of a single individual. If you shut down a country’s power system, people are going to die—indirectly if not directly. So you have to be quite careful if you think about it as injury-free or cost-free. As we get increasingly holistic about our wars, we’ve got to take proportionality questions seriously.

[To read the rest of the conversation, click here]

[Illustration: Miguel Jiron]

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