During the latter half of January 2022, a group of hacktivists (an activist using hacking to advocate for their beliefs) were able to compromise the Belarusian railroad management system. Taking in note the broader context of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian crisis, this coordinated effort was conducted by a Belarusian opposition group’s desire to slow down a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as the Russian military was believed to be transporting troops by train to the Ukrainian border. While the Belarusian Railway did not confirm a cyber-attack on its systems, it has publicly acknowledged several systems having technical difficulties. This attack is among one of the first of its kind, a non-state actor using cyber warfare as a means of action. While most Americans would seemingly support this action, it serves as a dangerous precedent for future conflicts.
The concept of using a country’s complete resources (military and civilian) to assist in armed conflict most notably, known as total war, started during the American Civil War. During the Savannah campaign, General Sherman created a “scorched earth policy” where his troops would seek to destroy anything assisting the Confederacy. Telegram lines, bridges, and other critical infrastructure were destroyed. This method of warfare gradually became commonplace and was utilized during the Second World War. World War Two became the most destructive war in human history. The United State’s response was a nearly $13 billion recovery plan, roughly $144 billion dollars adjusted to inflation, that did not fully support reconstruction efforts. Total war is a destructive policy that the international community has largely abandoned.
Cyber warfare offers a new format of warfare that can be even more destructive than traditional warfare. The world at large has increased its reliance on digital infrastructure. Hackers would be able to affect the lives of millions of Americans by forcing internet service providers offline, Comcast and Charter hold 60 million of the roughly 75 million internet subscribers. More calculated attacks however could be equally effective, as seen in the Colonial Pipeline hack. Power plants could be forced offline during peak demand, Google/Amazon/Microsoft servers that power most websites could shut down disrupting the way we communicate with each other, and electronic banking could be frozen making commerce slow dramatically. If multiple of these attacks occurred roughly at the same time, an entire region of the world would effectively be forced to shut down.
These drastic attacks have practical uses for nearly every country. North Korea currently has a cyber-attack group and could order an attack on the United States and South Korea during a missile launch. The People’s Republic of China could attack communications with Taiwan to secure the island. Ongoing civil wars would disrupt a country given further as essential services are shut down. Wars of attrition could once again become commonplace as the wealthiest countries would be the only countries able to invest in cyber security and plan retaliatory attacks as a deterrence. Major world powers and the international community at large has a vested interest in condemning these types of attacks and creating an international framework to prevent them.