What Is Cyber Warfare? Definitions, Past Cyber Wars and International Cyber Relations

Along with the advancement of civilization, technology has become not only a part of our daily lives, but also an integral factor in the international relationship between countries. Gone are the days of war with sword and shields, nations are destroyed with the help of information and technology in the modern era. The incredible speed at which technology has developed has not only brought good things to human society, it also opened new ways to infiltrate the enemy. It is safe to say that based on modern technology, the international relationship between different states, and the domestic relationship between the public and the state are taking place. People are moving away from traditional ways and using new methods of communication instead of the old ones. Governments now provide important services like banking, currency exchange, visa and passport applications, bill payments etc. over a network. These services can now be used with the help of a computer or a handheld smart phone. Undeniably this system comes with a lot of benefits, but an opposite and equal reaction is warranted for every action. Cyber warfare, cyber threats, cyber terrorism, identity theft etc. are the perils of modernization.

While digitally attacking an individual is a great crime, even national security can be compromised due to these attacks. Companies, people, organizations and even governments are in danger of theft, damage, control or destruction of information from digital attackers. If cybercrimes are considered low scale danger and cyber warfare high scale danger, these two combined can turn dreams into nightmares. From actual places, battlefields are shifting to virtual areas. Countries in addition to air forces, land forces and navy now create cyber armies, either officially or unofficially.

what is cyber warfare

Cyber Warfare Terminologies

In order to understand the scope of cyber warfare, some terminologies must be known.


The term cyberspace was first used in 1982 by an American author named William Gibson in his story named “Burning Chrome”, and later again in 1984 in his novel “Neuromancer”. This term is mostly used to describe the internet, which contains numerical communication and interaction methods. It consists of thousands of computers that are interconnected to aid in data connectivity and exchange protocols. NATO define it as something more than a collection of software, hardware and information system, as people are also part of the cyberspace.


Some kind of security is needed to protect the information, frameworks and system in cyberspace against cyber threats. In order to protect the privacy and assets of organizations, agencies, users and governments, the utilization of methods, guidance, activities, tools and technologies can be called cybersecurity. The primary purpose of cybersecurity is to prevent any and all possibilities of breach of security to assure privacy and safety of  important data and information in the internet.

Cyber warfare

Before the technological advancements, wars were fought using swords and shields. Gradually the art of war began to adapt the newly invented tools of annihilation that science was developing. The development of aeronautic in the 1900s allowed aerial combat to become a new battlefield. During 1950s, a new warfare in space began between super powers. In current times, cyber warfare has been added to war terminology and is describes a new, fifth zone for combat. There are a multitude of definitions of cyber warfare as no peace treaty exists regarding cyber warfare, pinpointing the exact malicious activities that can be regarded as it can be difficult.

 Generally, an act of coordinated and massive digital attack on a nation by a large body of citizens or by another government or its citizens is referred to as cyber warfare. In order to infiltrate a nation’s networks and digital infrastructure to cause disruption and damage, the action of another nation is cyber warfare. It can also include attacks between organizations, from terrorist syndicates, or assault by individual attackers known as hackers.

RAND corporations states that not only assaults, event attempting to cause damage to another nations networks or computers are also viewed as cyber warfare. According to Richard Clarke, the attack must be between nations for it to be considered as cyber warfare. If we look at all the definitions, any harmful and damaging results causing from cyber attacks, even if there’s no mutual conflict may be characterized as cyber warfare. Although cyber attacks barely create consequences like that of real wars, if we look at the overall paradigm and worst case scenarios, there can be extreme risks. For some countries, a cyber war can prove to be just as devastating as an actual war. A cyber war can start and end at a short amount of time. The systems for physical wars can be disrupted and destroyed in a cyber attack, rendering a country defenseless.

There are a number of differences in comparison between a physical and digital war. The damage suffered in a cyber war can be hard to predict. Unlike physical wars, cyber attacks can be planned and executed very swiftly and efficiently.  Attackers can hack into physical battle systems controlled by computers and take control. Based on the type of systems were captured, injuries, physical damage and even death can occur. If crucial infrastructures like nuclear reactors fall into the hands of attackers, it can cause massive damage that can prove to be catastrophic. Weapons and systems used for cyber attacks such as hardware, network, software are much cheaper and easier to access than real ammunition. As most of the time the hackers are nameless or incognito, they are very difficult to track down and bring under the law. For these various reasons cyberspace is becoming the center of war in the future.

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Cyber Warfare Capabilities of Countries

Apart from individual and organization of hackers, many nations are creating apparatuses for secret networks and undercover computer systems including sabotage and espionage. For many countries, cyberspace is part of the national security protocol. Countries like China, North Korea, Russia and United States are primary forces on cyberspace.

cyber warfare


      The CNCERT/CC or CNCERT (National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team Coordination Center of China) in their annual report states that China’s cyber weapons and IT infrastructure is significantly superior compared to other countries. They play a dominant role on the cyberspace and in cyber attacks as well. Recently, cyber attacks from and against China has noticeably increased. A spokesperson from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Ministry of Defense of China states that China considers cyber attacks are just as significant and serious as physical attacks. The National Defense of the People’s Republic of China announced on 20 July 2014 announced the establishment of an Information Protection Base that would operate under General Staff Department. The PLA built the “blue army” troop that operates as an online military unit dealing with digital attacks.

North Korea

      In 1998, the military of North Korea first established a unit solely for the purpose of digital war. This unit is called Unit 121 and it has steadily grown and developed in ability and size since its conception. They engage in everything from atomic tests, further rocket tests, pulling out from 1953 treaty of cease fire which ended Korean War, and of course, engagement in cyber warfare. Recently, North Korea has hacker organizations surpassing 5,000 units according to the reports of South Korea.


      The FSB (Federal Security Service) is a principal security organization of Russia. This institution succeeds the former USSR’s KGB (Committee for State Security). It is federal executive body that possess the authority required to implement policies by the government in terms of national security. One of its basic functions is to ensure information security. FSB accomplishes this by utilizing self created and off the track infiltration and hacking system and devices that operate both locally and globally. Organizations like FAGCI/FAPSI (Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information) and Special Communications and Information Service of the Federal Protective Service of the Russian Federation (Spetssvyaz) are charged with investigating and gathering communication and international intelligence. They also ensure the correspondences of the government and also data systems as well, which consists of security of data and crypto analysis. The idea of data security differs greatly between Russian and the western views. Russia is statist when it comes to their cyberspace and their definition of breach of data is unpopular in western worlds.

United States

      President George W. Bush in 2002 took the first steps for cyber war strategies. Apart from the many other agencies, there are five primary agencies that play a key role in the cyber security of USA: USCYBERCOM, NSA/CSS, US-CERT, CISA and FBI. In 2018, USA released a National Cyber Strategy to strengthening the cyber security of federal networks and critical infrastructure. This strategy explained that the government will protect the state by protecting systems, functions, networks and data. They strive to achieve a secure and safe digital cyberspace to promote domestic innovation and prosperity in the economy. They intend to strengthen the cyber abilities of USA by cooperating with their allies and partners and punish the entities that attempt to cause harm to the national cyberspace. They also intend to expand American influence on other countries and their cyberspace to hold control over the global cyber ecosystem.

Cyber Wars in the Past

In the history of cyber warfare, the discovery of Stuxnet was a defining moment. Stuxnet was uncovered in 2010, but thought to have been in development since at least 2005. It is a malicious computer worm that takes over administrative control and the system responsible for the acquisition of data. One of its key functions was to completely destroy a military target. It does so by targeting the reprogramming programmable logic controllers (PLCs), so that hackers could override and control the system at their will. It was originally targeted at Iran’s nuclear facilities and caused great damage. Since then it mutated and spread to other energy-producing and industrial facilities. There have been many conjectures about who was responsible for its birth. And although there isn’t any definite proof, it is safe to say that United States of America along with Israel were responsible for the birth of Stuxnet, hence becoming the pioneer of cyber warfare in the modern world.

cyber security and cyber warfare

      In 2007, Estonia suffered massive damage from hackers that executed concentrated 128 DDOS assaults on internet conventions in the country, causing in the internet traffic rate to expand from 20,000 to 4 million per second, resulting in cyber infrastructures to break down. Estonia blamed Russia for the attack but NATO and European Commission claimed that there were no evidence for this.  

      Russia was again involved in a cyber war in 2008, this time against Georgia. However this cyber war was a part of the physical war that was taking place between the two countries. Before a gun was fired, Georgia was already being hit with cyber attacks by Russia. They hacked all communications channels to prevent information being relayed to the public.

       The cyber relation between China and USA has always been shady. There have been countless attacks and counter attacks between the two countries. The development of Golden Shield by China, an intelligence communications program using state of the art advanced technologies only alludes to the fact. Cyber attacks against USA by the Chinese military is code names Titan Rain. One such operation is called Operation Aurora. It was a series of attacks by hackers directed by APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats) that was targeted at no less than 34 American organizations including tech giants such as Google, Yahoo, Symantec, Morgan Stanley, Northrop Grumman, and many others.

      In 2010, Cyber war broke out between Japan and Korea after Japanese web users made racist and offensive comments about a Korean student that was beaten to death in a Japanese imageboard name 2chan. Members of several South Korean internet forums banded an association named Terror Action Association (TAA) and carried out a massive DDOS attack on 2chan servers, rendering their servers paralyzed. The Pacific Internet Exchange later declared it as an act of cyber terrorism.

      In 2012 Bangladesh started a cyber war against India. It was in protest of the killing of Bangladeshi people in the borders of India-Bangladesh by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF). Bangladeshi hackers hacked into BSF’s website, and in response, Indishell along with other Indian hacker groups infiltrated five Bangladesh government ministry websites. Bangladeshi hacker groups such as Bangladesh Cyber Army (BCA), Bangladesh Black Hat Hackers (BBHH), and 3xp1r3 Cyber Army (3CA) joined forces, hacking and defacing thousand of Indian websites.

      During the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, hackers from Russia infiltrated DNC (Democratic National Committee) that caused a data breach. The USA government declared that Russian government intelligence agencies were involved in this cyberespionage.  Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) determined that this attack was to assist Donald Trump in winning the election.

      In 2020, Muslims from around the world caused an uproar protesting against France displaying demeaning portrait of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). After French President Emmanuel Macron’s defense of the right to show cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), hackers from Bangladesh along with other Muslim countries orchestrated massive digital assaults on French commercial websites. A hacker community from Bangladesh named Cyber 71 claimed responsibility for the attacks. They removed the original content from the websites and left a message of protest as well as sound recordings of praises of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

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 Cyber warfare Laws

As cyber warfare is a new type of war, there are many legal issues and loopholes regarding the laws and international regulations. Some nations consider cyber attacks just as same as physical attacks in terms of legal repercussions. A body of law which provides grounds justifying the transition from peace to armed force is called Jus ad bellum, while Jus in bello regulates the conduct of parties engaged in an armed conflict. These methods can be applied to cyber crimes as well. An independent group of internationally renowned experts were called in 2009 by NATO to produce a set of laws that are evaluated by applying existing set of laws to cyber wars. The group of experts produced a manual Tallinn Manual, named as the region of Estonia the organization was based on.

This manual boasts an impressive and extensive study of legal concepts applied in cyber warfare. It deals with international laws of cyber security and cyber conflicts. Its rules state that the government has every right over cyber systems in the country. It also states that any act of wrongful cyber operation would legally be attributed the country it originated from, and that the victimized country is warranted cyber counteractions against the responsible country. It declares that weather offensive or defensive, any cyber action that results in destruction or damage to people or objects will be considered as a cyber attack. The manual also ensures safety of the civilians from any and all cyber attacks.

Just as people have tried and failed to stop wars in the world, cyber wars are also not going to be stopped. As it is an extension of the physical and political war fought between nations. Malicious actions compromises cyber security and can cause massive harm to a nation’s cyberspace. The number of data breaches in a year is rising at an alarming rate. Within the first nine months of 2019 a shocking 7.9 billion cases of data breaches have been reported. This amount is more than double the amount of breaches during 2018. If this keeps up cyberspace as a whole will become an unsafe place for people so steps must be taken to ensure privacy and security of citizens.

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