Analysis & Opinions - Offensive Cyber Working Group

Subversion over Offense: Why the Practice of Cyber Conflict Looks Nothing Like Its Theory and What This Means for Strategy and Scholarship

  • Lennart Maschmeyer
| Jan. 19, 2022

Cyber attacks are both exciting and terrifying, but the ongoing obsession with ‘cyber warfare’ clouds analysis and hampers strategy development. Much commentary and analysis of cyber conflict continues to use the language of war, where actors use ‘offensive cyber operations’ to meet adversaries in ‘engagements’ striving for victory on the ‘battlefield’ in the ‘cyber domain’. This discourse persists despite a growing consensus that cyber operations are primarily relevant in conflict short of war. For example, even the United States’ new strategy of ‘persistent engagement’ developed to meet challengers in such conflict nonetheless implies a military dimension of ‘engaging the enemy’ in its very name. Sometimes, this dogged adherence to the conceptual framework of war can take almost comical dimensions, with a recently published book proposing that “cyberwarfare…is modifying warfare into non-war warfare”. If cyber conflict is not war, why should we continue to look to concepts, theories and language of war to understand and explain it? Moreover, analysts not only agree cyber operations are primarily relevant in non-military competition, but available evidence indicates that cyber operations are in fact ineffective instruments of force projection.

The theory and perception of cyber conflict thus increasingly differs from its observed practice. Visions of cyberwar date back to the beginnings of scholarly engagement with the opportunities and challenges the use of information technologies brings in conflict. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt warned ‘Cyberwar is Coming’, heralding a new form of conflict. Accordingly, a subsequent wave of theorizing foresaw a revolution in military affairs enabled by the information revolution. Neither has manifested in practice. The foundational notion of a revolution in conflict has lived on, however—only the type of conflict has changed. Accordingly, recent literature suggests cyber operations enable a new strategic space of conflict short of war, marked by a condition of ‘unpeace’ and opening a new way to ‘shape’ world politics in one’s favor. In short, the expectation is that cyber operations transform conflict by offering a way to attain strategic goals that were previously unreachable without going to war. This transformative influence is due to the presumed superior speed, scale, and anonymity of cyber operations. Empirical studies of cyber operations challenge these expectations, however, revealing extensive lead time, operational complexity and yet limited impact. Moreover, governments and private sector actors are increasingly adept at attributing cyber operations to their sponsors, and sometimes do so publicly.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Lennart Maschmeyer, “Subversion Over Offense: Why the Practice of Cyber Conflict Looks Nothing Like Its Theory and What This Means for Strategy and Scholarship,” Offensive Cyber Working Group, January 19, 2022, 

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