Soft power: cyber style

As states choose to restrict internet access when internal security issues arise, Dr Dave Sloggett looks at novel ways that wireless technologies may provide solution

Soft power: cyber style

Military vernacular has always been based on extensive use of the three letter acronym. Listen to any briefing conducted by military people and it is easy to feel lost, uncertain about who to ask about the last wave of abbreviations that were circulating around the room. 

This phenomenon can be specifically difficult when new forms of warfare emerge. At this point a whole new generation of three letter acronyms appear out of the blue. It can all be very confusing. 

Doctrine writers seem to enjoy creating an entire new lexicon of three letter acronyms to go with any new form of warfare. With the Cold War having largely been confined to history they were unleashed upon the brave new world of counter insurgency operations, or COIN as it is abbreviated in military circles. COIN warfare also brought with it an increasing emphasis on some new ideas of how warfare in the future would be fought. One of those was asymmetric warfare.

Counter insurgency

One of the important lessons to emerge from the counter insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is that warfare is not all about killing people. While the phrase ‘hearts and minds campaign’ now seems somewhat dated, its underlying principles endure. If you are seen to be an occupying force it is important to work hard to maintain the goodwill of the people. 

The evolution of the principles of counter insurgency also saw politicians start to develop a new form of language with respect to the application of military power. Until the advent of counter insurgency operations, the assumption was that by and large military power would be applied kinetically. That certainly would have been the case had the Cold War ever turned from an ideological confrontation into a real conflict. 

With the need to maintain the support of the people it became apparent that military power should also be applied with a lighter touch. As the cost of military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan grew, a new term emerged in the political and military world. Soft power entered the discourse of both political and military thinking. The simple idea behind soft power was that political aims could be achieved without resorting to force. This was not an attempt to make the application of military power redundant. Just to apply it in more subtle ways.

Cyber sabotage

In the last few years the latest form of warfare to rise from the morass of military terminology is the notion of cyber warfare. Mainstream media headlines have frequently, and incorrectly, portrayed particular events as being examples of cyber war. The release of the Stuxnet virus which caused damage to the Iranian nuclear programme is one of numerous examples. 

This and many of the other events labelled somewhat naïvely by the press as cyber wars were of course nothing of the sort. Many of the examples quoted are in fact examples of cyber espionage if anything. The release of the Stuxnet virus was an act of cyber sabotage, not warfare per se. 

Despite their embarrassment of the impact of Stuxnet the Iranians did not call it an act of war. When so-called patriots (hacktivists) in one country choose to deface government web sites in a country with which it has a history of enmity, it is difficult to label this as an act of war. 

Clearly many of the occasions falsely labelled as cyber war are little more than attempts to gain some advantage from a propaganda viewpoint. These are examples of the application of soft power. Its aim is to have a corrosive effect upon the will of the people. If their government’s information technology systems are insecure or, as in the case of Estonia, their banks are unable to dispense cash, this can have a huge impact on the population. 

Power of the internet

That is all well and good, but what about when states start to use cyber-space as a means of trying to coerce their own population? In Syria as the security situation has deteriorated, the government have on several occasions chosen to cut off the internet. Iran applied a similar response during the so-called ‘Green Revolution’. Both governments realised the powerful effect the images of their military operations against their own people have in galvanising international public opinion. 

In today’s world a short video on a social media site says more than many thousands of words. It can have a dramatic impact, as recent images emerging from Syria purporting to show the aftermath of the use of chemical weapons illustrates. 

During the Arab Spring similar efforts to regulate access to the internet were applied in other middle-eastern countries. Other countries have also resorted to similar tactics. Authoritarian states ensure that ownership of the infrastructure through which its citizens access the internet lies in the hands of trusted people. If the state wants access switched off it simply has to ask.

This raises an intriguing possibility of a new way to apply soft power in cyber space. In Syria the international community is finding it hard to implement regime change. What worked in Libya clearly is not a recipe for similar military intervention in Syria. Calls for the implementation of a no-fly zone to protect the population have been consistently rejected by Russia and China. However, cyber-space might offer an alternative.

Wireless systems offer a novel potential solution to this dilemma. Where a state decides to remove access to the internet, it is possible to think of ways of creating an alternative wireless access facility that can be deployed quickly into an area to ensure that citizens can still post their videos illustrating the oppression being carried out by their leaders. This is an application of soft power using ad-hoc wireless networks. 

One of the great characteristics of wireless technology is its inherent mobility. The technologies can be quickly deployed on manned or unmanned aircraft that can fly outside the barriers of territorial waters offering free bandwidth to users. High flying platforms would provide a line of sight deep into the target state. 

With wireless technologies now being used in areas of the radio spectrum that can operate over longer distances, it will be hard for a state to find ‘cyber-free havens’ where it can continue to suppress its people without regard for the pictures that emerge into the international community. Receivers can also be placed around the borders of states and use local relief to create additional coverage of the networks. 

Ad-hoc networks

Where states have little capability to shoot down unmanned aircraft they can be deployed over built-up areas offering a radio-relay facility to the internet. Bandwidth would be at a premium so the relay nodes would have to support high data rates. Satellite phones might also be given to rebel forces trying to overthrow a regime.

This kind of action is an example of the application of soft power. By creating ad-hoc wireless access gateways that are readily available to a population, the international community can ensure a continuing flow of information which a regime is trying to suppress. In time it may also be possible to be more precise about the authenticity of imagery and the source. This is a major problem at the moment and is used by some to delay political initiatives.

The idea could also be applied in the immediate aftermath of humanitarian disasters or emergencies in countries where access to the internet is limited. Providing a temporary boost to the bandwidth that is available may help those mounting rescue operations to target what are often scarce resources more effectively. With the proliferation of mobile phones the ability to capture imagery and video in
the worst affected area becomes more straightforward.

Ad-hoc networks used in this way are an application of soft power using cyber-space. Of course for the military purist, once a network was available it could be used to conduct targeted cyber-attacks into a country. Depending on the circumstances in which the ad-hoc networks were used, that could be referred to as an act of cyber warfare.  

Irrespective of the arguments that would inevitably arise, the introduction of such a capability into the military would no doubt bring with it yet another outpouring of three letter acronyms from the doctrine writers. In a world were so much uncertainty exists that is one thing that remains a constant.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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