How the war in Ukraine is forcing DOD to think differently about armed conflict and cyber's impact

A Ukrainian Special Forces Soldier prepares for a mission with the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade and U.S. Army's 10th Special Forces Group during Exercise Combined Resolve 16 in Hohenfels, Germany, December 8, 2021. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Patrik Orcutt)

The conflict in Ukraine should prompt the Pentagon to think differently and reevaluate assumptions about modern warfare and the role of cyber in it, according to a senior official.

“This is a really important conflict for us in the Department of Defense to understand because what you’re seeing is a cyber-capable adversary bring those capabilities to bear in the context of an armed conflict,” Mieke Eoyang, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy, said at the Aspen Cyber Summit Wednesday. “One of the things that we’re seeing is the context of the armed conflict dwarfs the cyber impacts of that.”

For example, while the Russians might not have had their desired digital impact through cyber attacks against Ukraine, they were able to conduct kinetic attacks with digital implications by actually bombing data centers.

“Things the Russians tried to disrupt via cyber … did not have the strategic impact that they wanted. They sought to destroy those things physically,” Eoyang said. “When you think about the cybersecurity of data centers, for example, it’s not just about patching and closing those things. It is about the physical security of those data centers. It is about whether or not those data centers are within the range of Russian missiles. Ukrainian colleagues that I had the privilege of meeting with, had a very different physical and visceral reaction to data centers that were above ground than that I think they would have had prior to the conflict. I think we have to think about it very differently.”

The war has also introduced the specter of non-state actors — on both sides — that can have a much larger impact in the operating environment. Unlike the insurgencies the U.S. saw during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where in some cases ordinary citizens took up arms, the Ukraine conflict is demonstrating that non-state actors also wield significant capability in the cyber realm.

“In cyber, you do see non-state actors who have capability that can rival that of state actors. It does mean that it becomes a very complicated thing to defend against,” she said. “One of the assumptions that I think those of us who work in traditional theories of armed conflicts have to understand is different about cyber [is] whereas in regular warfare, offensive capabilities are held monopoly to the state — you don’t have a lot of non-state actors who have theater missile defense systems or theater missile systems” — that’s not the case with cyber.

Non-state groups and individuals could complicate the operations of U.S. cyber warriors — making them account for their actions inside and outside military networks — while possibly having reverberations beyond geographically-defined conflict zones.

“How has the situation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed my views? … It’s introduced us to a whole new set of actors … hacktivists, cyber criminals, lone wolf threats, etc.,” Maj. Gen. William Hartman, commander of U.S. Cyber Command’s cyber national mission force, said at the Joint Service Academy Cybersecurity Summit in April. “They will pick a side, they will act, but they’ll do so with a different risk calculus and generally without any rules. The likelihood of miscalculation there is really significant.”

Eoyang said she believes it will take quite some time to determine the impact of these non-state actors at a strategic level, adding this is a different component to this conflict than those in the past.

In addition to having to potentially operate against or alongside these actors, they also complicate attribution, Eoyang said. That dynamic slows incident response because U.S. officials want to be sure who perpetrated the event so they can respond appropriately against the right groups or individuals.

The information environment

As the DOD is looking to bolster and reshape its own strategies for information warfare and how to operate in the information environment, the conflict in Ukraine has provided key lessons for how the besieged nation has denied Russia key information victories even though Moscow has history of being a savvy actor in this arena.

“We also now have to think about what it means for Ukrainians to be able to continue to communicate with the world. Because the ability of average Ukrainians to tell their story on TikTok, on Twitter, on Facebook, to share video of what has happened to them has denied Russia the information environment that they want to prosecute this conflict,” Eoyang said. “You can see Russia trying to take away from Ukraine the ability to control its own fate and its [digital] traffic by trying to reroute traffic through Russia as they take over territory.”

Eoyang added that ordinary people have been able to share their own stories online, which is a very different information space than other conflicts.

Even government officials have made use of the ubiquity of social media to get their message out, to include Ukraine’s president.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s use of social media and broadcasting was a key personification for one of the main pillars of the Marine Corps’ new doctrine for operating in the information sphere — Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-8, Information (MCDP-8). The doctrine identifies three distinct information advantages the Corps seeks to gain: systems overmatch, prevailing narrative, and force resiliency.

Officials in the past have indicated that access to reliable communication allowed Zelensky to maintain a prevailing narrative by becoming a charismatic leader globally, galvanizing the will of the people and generating global support to deny Russia its political goals.