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Social, Criminal Protagonists Engage in New Information Age Battle Techniques

July 1999
By Michelle L. Hankins

Propaganda war reaches global audience to evoke international activity.

Just as information system users are becoming accustomed to the concept of cyberwar, a new form of information conflict is emerging that rests on a completely different set of principles. Popularly known as netwar, it is based on a strategy of accessing a network, not to destroy it but to maintain and operate it as a tool to gather support and maintain communications.

Netwar comes in many forms and is already being demonstrated worldwide by several distinct types of groups, according to technology analysts. These groups include not only the usual suspect terrorists and criminals, but also some nations that further these groups’ efforts to advance their own agendas.

As a public network, the Internet has done more than just link people together in a global village. It has altered the scope of potential threats to national security and has already dramatically shifted many of the traditional concepts of military operations. Before, people thought of cyberwar as a strategy for wreaking havoc on a nation’s stability by destroying its information technology infrastructure (SIGNAL, June 1999, page 65). Now, the entirely different concept of netwar involves keeping the network running, which in some cases can lead to an even more damaging outcome. The threat of battles that do not involve aircraft and tanks but instead can be waged with personal computers and an Internet connection is forcing nations to rethink strategies for defense in the information age.

“It’s about how to win the battle of ‘the story,’” says John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. Arquilla is co-authoring a book about networks and netwars that will be out next summer. He explains that keeping the network up, not taking it down, is what netwar is all about. His co-author, Senior Social Scientist David Ronfeldt, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California, continues that the concepts of cyberwar and netwar are on opposite ends of the spectrum. While cyberwar is on the military end, usually in the form of a direct attack to systems, netwar is more a social influence.

“Netwar is a real phenomenon that is growing in its popularity,” Arquilla states, explaining that it is different from traditional warfare in which one state is positioned against another. Today, netwar’s unique challenge is from nonstate enemies. Traditional adversarial factions need a significant magnitude of resources to successfully rise up, but today’s cyberfighters need only be armed with a computer, strong ideas and an Internet service provider. Ronfeldt offers that to some extent, netwar is a prognosis. He believes future wars will likely be fought in this domain and notes that several groups have been moving in this direction for some time.

Mainly, four types of protagonists use netwar, according to Ronfeldt. The most influential, he believes, are militant social activists who use the Internet to gain support for their specific social causes. Another predominant category of protagonists employing the netwar technique is the ethnonationalists. These groups comprise small clans or communities that often are seeking their own national delineation. The third type, terrorists, use the Internet for both cyberwar and netwar. The United States already has focused a great deal of its attention on cyberterrorists and closely watches their potential to use or bring systems and networks down. Lastly, transnational criminals are using the public network to carry out their illegal activities.

In analyzing netwar techniques, Ronfeldt observes that swarming is characteristic of this type of cyberattack. Swarming refers to reaching and motivating a large audience by intermittently posting information and then slipping out of sight. Criminals especially will use this technique to sell stolen goods.

Arquilla cites several examples of the many netwars that have occurred and have already dramatically affected the outcome of political and ethnic uprisings, demands for social change and criminal activities. In the case of the Chechens, who sought independence from Russia, the group organized using the Internet. In this form of ethno-national conflict, Arquilla recounts that the Chechens ability to form a network aided in the organization of the movement as its fight against the Russians escalated.

Another example of netwar took place in 1994 when the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas rose against the Mexican government. In this instance, the Zapatista army declared war on the Mexican army and the nation’s response threatened an extremely violent war between government forces and the indigenous people. Activists from various groups took notice of the conflict, and their responses, in many instances electronic, pushed for social change instead of a further escalation of violence. Through the assistance and voice of many nongovernmental organizations, the movement was able to lobby for nonviolent change. Many people both in and outside of Mexico were involved in the struggle to meet the Zapatista’s demands for change.

Apart from civil movements within nations, entire social and political campaigns have been launched via the Internet. This electronic resource provides the necessary venue to promote ideas and cultivate support for a multitude of causes. The campaign against the use of landmines launched by a gathering of nongovernmental organizations is one example of how groups are using the Internet to push for social and political change. Throughout this near decade-long campaign, groups have publicized the issue, holding meetings and conferences worldwide, forming national campaign efforts and forcing governments to examine their policies on the use of antipersonnel landmines. Under pressure, even the United States has been forced to state its position on the world political stage.

Likewise, criminals have found ways to use the Internet to further their interests. As an example, Arquilla and Ronfeldt both point to transnational criminals who use the Internet as a black market to sell goods internationally and to run other illegal operations. Both say Colombian, Mexican and Russian cartels are using the Internet in their operations. In addition, Arquilla describes instances of modern piracy in Southeast Asian waters, where seaborne criminals are using the Internet to sell stolen steel and oil. They use the swarming technique of intermittently posting their information on the Internet. Similarly, Arquilla says, there is evidence to suggest that the Chinese government is using pirates to help them exert sovereignty over territories in areas that are in dispute.

The efforts of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization and Palestinian resistance movement group known as Hamas are but two examples of the groups that are propagating their ideas online. “It’s about the war of ideas,” Arquilla concludes about netwar. “David is going to be able to slay Goliath, but not with a sling—with a laptop.”

In examining the current U.S. readiness for countering a netwar, Arquilla argues that the nation’s concepts of warfighting have not kept pace with the information age. “We have a field army approach,” he says, pointing to operations such as Desert Storm and the U.S. role in Kosovo. “There is little sense in our military that we need to do things in a different way.”

Arquilla explains that the battle of ideas involved in netwar is an exercise in perception management. The United States needs to recognize that ideas are as powerful as military hardware, he says. Once consciousness is raised to that level, then the country will be able to use its capabilities effectively to defend against netwar protagonists. “We are not prepared for full-blown cyberwar or netwar at this time,” Arquilla charges.

However, U.S. readiness still depends on its human capital; in fact, moreso today than ever before. As the number of troops deployed in military operations decreases, highly skilled individuals will be needed to operate advanced technology, gather intelligence and plan for military operations and strategies. Over time, these individuals will likely be drawn to the public sector and away from the services. Arquilla suggests that a possible solution to the problem would be to cultivate the reserve forces, thus allowing personnel to earn private-sector salaries and serve the national interest as well.

This new emphasis on maintaining well-trained technologically capable forces should begin at the military academies, experts argue. A shift in the curricula should reflect changes in warfighting techniques and should foster a greater understanding of cyberwar and netwar. To ensure readiness, the United States further needs to match leading-edge military technology with wise policy geared toward warfare in the information age. While the military must have a topsight or full view of the scenario, it must allow for a tremendous decentralization, Arquilla maintains.

While the world will not experience the full elimination of combat forces, analysts predict that smaller armies aided by technology will be the future of military operations. This shift away from a weapons-industry-dependent military, which focuses on building up munitions and warfighting craft, will result in a significantly less expensive military force. Since these big-ticket items make up a majority of the military budget, gradually reducing their numbers will leave more money for research and development. And, experts argue that research and development is a crucial area where the nation must concentrate its resources to prepare for the future. In addition to research, the United States must harden existing commercial information technology to protect the nation from possible attack. Of course, Arquilla adds, the nation must not be too quick to move away from some of its older information systems, which sometimes offer greater security.

The country must develop contingency plans for how to deter attacks and defend against cyberattacks and netwar. Scenarios must be developed to prepare forces for various types of information age tactics. While the process of planning on a global basis is well established, Arquilla argues that the threats have changed.

For the well-prepared force, early warning of potential threats will be crucial for future cyberoperations, intelligence and vulnerabilities assessments. Ronfeldt offers several resources to help prepare for information age battle. A greater public-private partnership is the first step, which should be coupled with new approaches for watching and monitoring potential threats. The government, while relying on traditional sources of intelligence, needs to recognize the strength of nongovernmental organizations as sources of information because, in netwar, the greatest advantage is having the best information about what the other people are doing, Ronfeldt says.