Is a Cyber Attack a Real Attack?

As the threat of cyber war and cyberterrorism is evermore real in this twenty-first century, traditional military powers and alliances have to find ways to cope with computerized attacks. NATO now ponders returning fire, according to Defense Tech.

The group of experts headed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that is rethinking NATO’s future recently opined that a cyber attack targeting the critical infrastructure of an alliance member should equate to an armed attack, justifying retaliation. Several NATO members have come under such attack in recent years, most of which were traced back to Russia.

NATO commanders appear to be of a similar mindset. Defense Tech reports that multiple sources say that NATO is considering the use of military force against enemies who launch cyber attacks against its member states. “Many world leaders now fear that future cyber attacks will escalate up into a full-blown cyber war and possibly evolve into a conventional form of conflict.” Such an assault would then invoke the famed Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which prescribed that “an armed attack against one or more” NATO states “shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Article 5 was never invoked before 9/11 and it seems unlikely that a mild, relatively limited cyber attack would instantly rattle up all of NATO for war. But as the nature of warfare changes, so must the alliance. Considering a heavy cyber attack no less severe than a conventional offensive sends a clear signal to cyberterrorists affiliated with traditional states that their actions cannot be without consequence.

The difficulty is linking cyberterrorism to states, as is the case with terrorism in general. Retaliation should follow attack, but against whom to retaliate?

“One thing is certain,” notes Defense Tech: “the cyber threat situation is very dynamic and the proliferation of cyber weapons persists and capabilities of cyber weapons continue to increase.”