Until recently, "cyber war" has been reserved for science fiction thrillers -- like something you might expect from William Gibson. In the past few years, though, the concept has been gaining more mainstream acceptance as a real possibility, but a recent report shoots that theory down, claiming "It is unlikely that there will ever be a true cyber war."
To some extent, declaring that there will never be a cyber war is a matter of semantically splitting hairs. War is a game of capture the flag. A pure cyber war is like trying to have a pure air war, or a pure naval war. Although significant damage can be inflicted from the air, from the sea, or through a cyber infrastructure, troops still have to be physically present to take advantage of that damage and claim victory.
While cyber attacks can severely cripple an enemy, it would be very difficult to do lasting damage or completely destroy an enemy nation using only the Internet. That said, it would be almost silly not to use all available options -- including cyber attacks -- to distract and disable an enemy in conjunction with a traditional attack.
Marcus Ranum is the "father of the firewall", author of the Myth of Homeland Security, and the CSO of Tenable Network Security. Marcus Ranum has also been the voice of reason -- often the lone voice of reason -- challenging the concept of "cyber war" as pure security vendor and media FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) pretty much since the term was coined.
Ranum commented via e-mail about the contents of the cyber war report. "What the report really is saying is that, 'yeah, I'm right, real cyberwar is pointless, but that annoying cyber attacks will continue to be annoying.' I.e.: cyber war is not the huge force multiplier it was claimed to be."
Richard Stiennon, founder of IT-Harvest and author of Surviving Cyberwar, has a more nuanced opinion of the report. Stiennon told me, "I agree completely with this statement: 'A pure cyberwar, that is one fought solely with cyber-weapons, is unlikely. On the other hand in nearly all future wars as well as the skirmishes that precede them policymakers must expect the use of cyberweaponry as a disrupter or force multiplier, deployed in conjunction with more conventional kinetic weaponry. Cyberweaponry of many degrees of force will also be increasingly deployed and with increasing effect by ideological activists of all persuasions and interests.'"
Stiennon explains further, "Cyberweapons will be used in conjunction with other war fighting capabilities in all future wars involving well-armed combatants (certainly there will be wars in Africa that are more conventional)," adding, "Certainly there will be cyber-only conflicts instigated by cyber-only groups such as hacker teams (AnonOps for instance). And most certainly there will be cyber sabotage that goes un-attributed but achieves the goals that a nation would desire without involving cruise missiles, smart bombs, or drones (Stuxnet)."
The bottom line is that a pure cyber war seems highly unlikely, but cyber attacks will represent a serious and growing threat both as a diversionary incident and disruptive event in conjunction with traditional attacks, or as a tool for inflicting more precise attacks against specific strategic targets.