NATO Must Adapt to the Battlefields of Tomorrow
With the increasing use of the internet in cyber warfare, the premier Alliance of the West must focus strongly on its offensive cyber capabilities to deter potential enemies: after all, enemies would be more wary of attacking NATO if they knew the Alliance had the ability to fight back. Therefore, in order to become a formidable player in the cyber arena NATO must create dedicated task forces of cyber experts, and ensure they are structured into an effective military heirarchy.
The founding principle of NATO was deterrence against the forces of tyranny. Decades later, this principle has not changed. With the advent of the internet, it is possible for enemies of NATO to use computers to steal information and damage command and control capabilities. It was only recently, in 2014, when the Alliance finally took these threats seriously and formed a comprehensive cyber defense policy. This was only after multiple high profile cyber-attacks on member states, such as the attack against Estonia in 2007.
Unfortunately, NATO decided not to include any (public) mention of offensive cyber capabilities, only outlining a defensive, reactive policy. While this is definitely a step forward, it does not address the root of the problem. NATO does not have the ability to stop these attacks from happening; it only has the ability to defend against them. Of course, with the millions of attacks that happen per year against the Alliance, many of these attacks are successful. If NATO were to decide to go on the offensive, it would act as a preventive measure which would statistically decrease the likelihood of a successful attack. Enemies would be more wary of attacking the Alliance if they knew the Alliance had the ability to fight back.
It is difficult to predict what will happen a decade from now considering the pace that technology has progressed in recent years. What is certain is that the Internet will be a prevailing factor in the society of tomorrow. Because of the impending global increase in Internet connectivity, it is vital that NATO stays ahead of the curve. Western societies currently deem cyber-attacks as an acceptable way to combat an enemy without having to declare total war against them. As long as this norm holds, and barring catastrophic cyber-attacks threatening civilian life, there will be no hesitation from NATO enemies when launching attacks. As long as these attackers feel their identities will not be widely publicized, the benefits will far outweigh the costs.
At first, this fact seems to highlight the risk of a NATO offensive campaign. External nations – particularly Russia – will feel threatened if NATO declares to the world it will pursue offensive cyber warfare capabilities. Publicizing cyber warfare creates issues for all belligerents. However, for NATO the benefits of publicly announcing this campaign will far outweigh the political fallout that will potentially come forth. Because, as previously stated, NATO's sole purpose is as a deterrent against its enemies. Moscow may deem this as a threat to their national security, but they will not see this as a casus belli for war. They will complain – loudly – but will not risk responding with military force; their only form of retaliation will be their own cyber warfare campaign. This is already occurring. However, the difference is that if NATO has an offensive campaign in the future, Russia will be wary of not only a cyber-retaliation from NATO, but also a public relations crisis as their covert operations are exposed. This same problem will not plague NATO forces, because their cyber warfare program will already be known to the public.
To carry out these attacks, dedicated task forces of trained cyber experts must be recruited and trained by NATO forces. These task forces would act as dedicated "special operations" units. They would receive their targets from a structured military hierarchy just as any physical special operations unit would operate. Overseers of these task forces must be in contact with political representatives throughout each phase of mission planning and execution, thereby ensuring the potential political repercussions from an attack are understood and accepted.
The benefit of offensive capability will reach far beyond any political gain, and it will be an integral part of any military operation. As military technology leans towards digitalization, the utility of such task forces would only increase. Potential targets could include command and control centers, missile sites, nuclear installations, communication networks, anti-aircraft installations, information databases, and even potentially individual units such as tanks and planes. Anything that uses digital information and GPS has the potential to be hacked and either destroyed or rendered useless.
While it is important for each individual member state to be able to defend themselves from cyber-attacks, it is not necessary for each state to have the ability to attack. In fact, it would be more efficient if these task forces were very centralized. Putting them under control of NATO command would allow the units to be used only when necessary, so that individual members do not perform an attack that only serves their national interest and not the Alliance. But it still gives the units the freedom to be used in tandem with NATO security operations and in certain situations with a majority of member states consent. The level of said majority that should be required for certain levels of attacks is a matter of debate best reserved for the member states themselves.
If there is one thing that is certain about geopolitics, it is that nothing is certain. The threat from a country today could be nonexistent in ten years, and vice versa. Because of this, politicians tend to retreat to a more reactive policy, only addressing problems when they arise. Offensive cyber capabilities, however, allow NATO to take a preventative policy. Regardless of who the threat is in 2026, they will most likely be using advanced information systems. If NATO were to lead the way in mastery of information and cyber warfare, it is likely that the Alliance will only grow in influence over the course of the next ten years. This increased influence, coupled with the continued push for peace and democracy, will potentially lead the world toward a more stable and peaceful existence.
Shawn Gillooly studies political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is looking to focus in foreign politics.
This article has been submitted for category A "Preparing NATO for 2026" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories B, C, D.
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