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Cyber Warfare and Sino-American Crisis Instability

With this article, Gompert and Libicki explore the strategic and operational significance of cyber warfare capabilities for conventional military strategy, namely, they seek to highlight the ways in which cyber attacks could trigger conventional responses. Augmenting theories of crisis instability and security dilemmas with understandings from the cyber era, the authors argue that the unique characteristics of cyber warfare incentivize nations to undertake preemptive strikes that are against their rational, best interests. Gompert and Libicki use the case of a potential Sino-American conflict to argue that since both nations know there is a significant advantage to a preemptive strike, any perceived cyber attack will be met with a quick and extreme response, regardless of whether it was intended to be offensive, defensive, or was just accidental. The ambiguity inherent in the use of cyber tools (like questions of attribution, intention, and whether or not an attack was sanctioned by top leadership or by a rogue internal element) complicates matters further and could facilitate states to respond with disproportionate conventional force. By evaluating both the American and Chinese current military strategies for a future conflict, Gompert and Libicki conclude that both see cyberspace as a key domain for the conflict and that both nations are highly incentivized to strike first. To mitigate the risks of unintentional escalation, the authors prescribe greater communication and coordination between military commanders and political/diplomatic leaders on the national level in order to establish the appropriate checks and balances to prevent misinterpretation of evidence. Additionally, they advocate for the U.S. and China to engage in bilateral discussion to open channels of communication on conflict de-escalation. Keywords: cyber conflict, militarization, cyber operations, security dilemmas, crisis instability, Sino-American relations, conflict resolution, de-escalation
David C. Gompert & Martin Libicki
The International Institute for Strategic Studies
Domains-Issue Area: 
Industry Focus: 
Internet & Cyberspace
United States
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