Many moons ago, warfare had settled into a predictable pattern. Countries would raise armies, and either singly, or in alliance with other countries where they shared common interests, attempt to invade their opponents. There would be land battles, and after a while, as humans learned to command vessels on sea and in the air, those battles could occur at sea or in the air.
Eventually, wars would end either in stalemate, where the parties would reluctantly hammer out a peace treaty, or one side would win conclusively, in which case they would occupy and control the defeated side’s territory, sometimes overtly via military presence, or covertly via a client or “puppet” regime.
War was actually recognized as a process, hence the Geneva Conventions, which contained strict rules about how defeated combatants were to be treated. (Needless to say, many parties ignored the Geneva Conventions when it suited them).
This pattern of primarily land-based war based on conquest of territory and control of populations lasted right up to and including World War II.
After World War II the dynamic changed. Firstly we had the Korean War, which technically began not as a war, but a UN operation to prevent incursions. It soon became a war in all but name, but was a proxy war, with the US supporting the South and Russia and China supporting the North. It ended in a stalemate, but no peace treaty was ever signed, so technically North Korean and South Korea are still at war.
Then in the 1950’s, opposing factions in countries discovered what soon became known as asymmetric warfare. Instead of attempting an overt military action against overwhelmingly superior forces, which would have resulted in instant annihilation, the guerilla army concept was born. Groups of fighters would pick “soft” targets where they could inflict maximum damage with minimal risk. This developed further, in more urban societies, into the terrorist cell model, where largely autonomous small groups would independently plot attacks designed to cause maximum damage and publicity. Vietnam was won partly by the success of guerilla fighting by North Vietnam. The US tactics of conventional engagement and fire-fighting were ineffective for a long time, and resulted in numerous changes in US military practice. In the 1960s the IRA became active in Ireland and elsewhere, using urban terrorism tactics. Other terrorist groups sprung up in other places, using similar tactics.
The asymmetric warfare boom (excuse the pun) created all manner of challenges for law enforcement and military alike. The practitioners had in some cases made no formal declaration of war, and they were not part of a military organization. They pretended to be civilian when it suited them, but acted like military when it suited them. They regarded items like the Geneva Conventions as a quaint anachronism, silly rules written by the Big Guys.
Terrorists and guerillas are still with us. However, their tactics have continued to evolve. They have now been joined by an entirely different group of practitioners, enabled by the digital era.
Cyber-terrorists and cyber-warfare practitioners.
With the rise of the digital world, cyber-crime became common. Hackers would break into networks, steal credentials, and use them to lift money and goods.
Cyber criminals operated best in countries without a strong tradition of law enforcement. Eastern Europe and Russia became favored operation locations, due to a combination of under-resourced and corrupt policing, and governments who turned a blind eye to those activities, sometimes out of resentment against more prosperous countries.
The rise of The Internet Of Things, with autonomous devices acquiring operating systems and connectivity, has provided a rich landscape of opportunities for hackers to disrupt the lives of people and governments. Many IoT devices have little or no security, and even if security is provided, regular folks have little or no interest in activating it properly. (If you don’t believe me, take a war drive down a few urban streets and see how many people have home wireless routers that still have the out-of-box default names and passwords.)
A local example (relatively harmless, but still disturbing) was the hacking of the Dallas emergency tornado siren network a few weeks ago. There was likely no underlying motive by the hackers other than to show that they could do it, but the hack shows the way in which cyber-warfare could be used to disrupt a modern digital society.
We now have entered a new, more subtle and more dangerous era. Some countries have now adopted those cyber-criminal techniques in order to subvert peacetime processes such as democratic elections and political campaigns.
There is a good reason for this. The United States has a colossal advantage in conventional military strength. After decades of spending more money on military activities than dozens of other countries put together, we have a formidable arsenal of conventional weaponry, with enough nuclear backup to flatten most of the planet. Nobody with any sense or desire to live wants to take on that kind of military machine head-on.
So…countries that cannot compete via conventional military means are instead, spending money on cyber warfare. It is actually pretty cost-effective to pay a couple of dozen former hackers to subvert an election, compared to running a carrier group. The hackers can reside in the home country, where they are protected. Alternatively they can be officially defined as diplomats, which means that they can travel around the world, immune from prosecution in other countries, or they can live in an embassy and direct activities from there, HINT HINT.
This form of cyber-warfare is far more subtle than direct attacks on computers, and key infrastructure locations, which carry a high risk of detection. It takes the form of covert attempts to skew and influence key social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and the creation of numerous websites to promulgate and promote propaganda and other forms of deceptive reporting and analysis. The desire of platforms like Facebook to operate as common carriers (which shields them from liability for anything that is posted on their platform) also renders them largely powerless to curate and moderate information on the platform. So the platforms are really like the Wild West, vulnerable to being overloaded by falsehoods, propaganda and other forms of deceit.
During the 2016 US election cycle, there is ample evidence of overt and covert attempts to promulgate false narratives. The analysis work is still ongoing, but the reality is that a lot of the content being created during the election cycle was flat-out bullshit. Effectively the players in this new arena are part of the rise of a globalized propaganda machine. George Orwell’s analysis in “1984” looks more and more prescient by the day.
Right now, Russia wants to remove from office any political party that supports the current Western sanctions regime against it. That is their fundamental motive. They have no desire to become involved in any overt military action against the USA, so they are trying to win battles by attempting to subvert the democratic processes in Western countries that still support sanctions. Their next target is German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is up for re-election this year. Expect to see a lot of subtle attempts to influence the electoral process. This will most likely take the form