The North Atlantic Treaty Organization could begin using its cyber capabilities to try and deter attacks against allies.
There is no equivalent yet for mutually assured destruction in cyberspace. But Western strategists are wondering if mutually assured disruption in cyber space might be enough to deter a real-world attack.
Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Monday that cyber capabilities are forcing allies to change their approaches to defense.
“It requires us to think of warfare in new ways,” he said. “But NATO has a responsibility to think defensively, we are a defensive alliance.”
Governments, including the U.S. and Russia, and non-state actors have developed malware and forms of electronic warfare to disable opponents’ communications networks, air-defense systems and other critical infrastructure.
A range of cyber capabilities could help deter an attack, Mr. Vershbow said in an appearance at the Digital Life Design Europe conference in Brussels.
Mr. Vershbow raised the prospect of allies developing cyber programs to deactivate Russia’s ability to command and control its forces, similar to what he said Russians have demonstrated in eastern Ukraine.
“You may be able to deter your adversary just by that adversary having the knowledge that you have the means to disrupt command and control of an offensive attack,” Mr. Vershbow said. “If we also make clear even if the Russians mounted a large scale conventional attack we could use cyber to dismantle the command and control.”
In the U.S. military officials have long debated how much to discuss cyber capabilities secret. Keeping various military capabilities secret could help prevent adversaries from developing defenses. But outlining a military’s broad ability in cyber space can have a deterrent effect.
This year, NATO officially recognized cyberspace as a so-called domain of warfare, akin to land, sea or air, and the alliance has said since 2014 that a cyber attack could constitute a form of armed attack, provoking an allied response.
NATO’s cyber capabilities are nascent and the alliance has no plans to itself develop offensive cyber weapons. Still, Mr. Vershbow noted that in certain circumstances, NATO commanders could call on individual allies to utilize their offensive cyber capabilities.
Wolfgang Ischinger, the German diplomat who moderated the DLD panel, noted that a set of rules for the use of weapons in space had been developed beginning in the 1960s that prevented war from breaking out in that domain.
In an interview after, Mr. Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, noted that reaching consensus on the military use of space was easier because, unlike the cyber domain, only a few countries could launch satellites and spacecraft.
“In space you are dealing with just a few actors..all of whom could fit in a small room. That of course makes result-oriented discussions easy,” he said.
An agreement on the use of cyber weapons that is enforceable and verifiable would be far more difficult. But he said work must continue to establish norms of behavior and rules of responsible conduct.
“In these earlier cases, where new technology opened up new battlefields, in the past we have been able to develop new rules,” he said. “That is why the quest for rules has to go on.”