Cyberspace is a Domain of War

The first tenet of the theory is that cyberspace is a domain of war.  The argument that cyberspace is a domain of war rest on three facts.  First, it is a domain of war by doctrine – the US military defines cyberspace by doctrine.  Second, it is a domain of war by definition – it has the features of a domain of war.  Third, it is a domain of war by contestation – it is a domain of active conflict between nation states.

A Domain of War by Doctrine

William Lynn, US Deputy Secretary of Defense, stated in 2010 that, “As a doctrinal matter, the Pentagon has formally recognized cyberspace as a new domain of warfare.  Although cyberspace is a man-made domain, it has become just as critical to military operations as land, sea, air, and space.  As such, the military must be able to defend and operate within it.”[1]  Likewise, General Keith Alexander, Commander of US Cyber Command, stated before Congress,

The cyber domain in some ways is like the air domain, in being a realm that had no relevance for military planning until all of the sudden a new technology offered access to it.  A century ago the world’s militaries had to learn to fight in the air, and they had to do so all at once in the midst of a world war.  . . .  The parallels with cyberspace seem obvious: freedom of action in cyberspace, like freedom of maneuver in the air, is crucial to the efficient employment of one’s forces in all domains.  Likewise, the loss of such freedom could impair the capabilities we have built in all the other domains.[2]

The US Military’s Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review Report defines cyberspace as “a global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent network of information technology, infrastructures, including the Internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.”[3]  By doctrine, the US military is organized and equipped to wage war in the cyber domain.

A Domain of War by Definition

There does not appear to be an US military definition for a domain.  The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms does not define a domain.[4]  The Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary has two relevant general definitions of a domain:[5]

  • A territory over which rule or control is exercised.
  • A sphere of activity, interest, or function.

Though the territory in cyberspace is virtual not physical, state and non-state entities both exert and contest control.  It is also clearly a sphere of activity, interest, and function.  It would seem to meet the definition.

More directly germane to a domain of war, Patrick, Allen, and Gilbert proposed six key features for defining a domain of war.[6]  They posit that if a domain has these six features, it qualifies as a domain, and if it does not have all six features, it should not qualify as a domain.  This paper will use these features as the basis for arguing that cyberspace has the necessary and sufficient features of a domain of war.  The six features are:

  1. Unique capabilities are required to operate in that domain.  For example, aircraft are required to operate in the air domain and ships in the sea domain.  Computers and communications nets are required to operate in the cyber domain.
  2. A domain is not fully encompassed by any other domain.  For example, the air domain is not encompassed by the land domain, or vice versa.  Subsurface, the realm of the submarine, is encompassed by the sea domain.  Cyberspace is not subsumed in any other domain.
  3. A shared presence of friendly and opposing capabilities is possible in the domain.  Any domain can potentially be entered by opposing forces.  This is not to say that every opponent is present in every domain, but that an opposing presence must be possible for the sphere of interest and influence to be considered a domain.  A potential shared presence is an essential feature of a domain since dominance or control over the domain requires the possibility of an opposing presence or capability.  Cyberspace is a global common shared by friend and foe alike.
  4. Control can be exerted over the domain.  The presence of a potential opponent in the sphere of interest generates the need to influence or dominate such opponents in a domain.  Since a domain is a sphere of influence as well as of interest, then it must be possible for one side’s influence in a domain to dominate an opposing side’s influence.  For example, in cyberspace, we have seen distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks exert the influence of the attacker over that of the defender.
  5. A domain provides the opportunity for synergy with other domains.  The capabilities in a domain must be able to provide synergistic opportunities with capabilities in other domains.  In network-centric warfare, using networked sensors and stored geospatial information to dispatch a cyber-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to fire a weapon at a land-based target is an attack from cyberspace (through the air domain).
  6. A domain provides the opportunity for asymmetric actions across domains.  Similar to synergistic opportunities are the opportunities for capabilities in a domain to gain an asymmetric advantage over opposing forces in other domains.  As Cebrowski noted, network-centric warfare enables a shift from attrition-style warfare to a much faster and more effective warfighting utilizing the speed, and connectivity of cyberspace.[7]

Cyberspace satisfies the criteria for a domain of war.  It is, thus, a domain of war by definition.

A Domain of War by Contestation

Both state and non-state actors contest the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information processed within the computer and communications networks of cyberspace.  Cyberspace is under constant “attack.”  The vast majority of these attacks do not constitute acts of war; they are espionage or criminal acts and focus on stealing confidential data and rendering components of cyberspace inaccessible.  While not warfare per se, the national security implications of these activities alone would qualify cyberspace as a domain of national interest.  It is a national interest under contention and at risk.

However, there is a trend towards more sophisticated and persistent attacks.  Attackers now seek the ability to control or mislead components of cyberspace that comprise the national defense and critical infrastructures of nations.  This trend was noted by the US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board in a 2007 report, which said,

The evolving threat has reached a point at which commonly held beliefs about the nature of cyber-attack are becoming invalid.  While disruptive, and still a threat to be addressed, network or computer disablement has become augmented with a more serious threat.  The threat is migrating towards one in which adversaries wish to maintain the integrity of Air Force network and computer applications so that they can manipulate Air Force data or mission applications software through the use of their own malicious software.  The consequence is a more subtle and more dangerous situation, in which operators may continue to trust safe operation of systems that are no longer trustworthy.[8]

Such attacks would constitute acts of war.  Cyberspace is a global common, like the sea, and like the sea, freedom of operation is subject to dispute.[9]

Cyberspace is a domain or war because it is incorporated as such into military doctrine.  It meets all of the criteria for a domain of war and is actively under assault by both states and non-state actors.

[1] William J. Lynn, “Defending a New Domain,” Foreign Affairs 89, no. 5 (Sep/Oct 2010): 97.

[2] Keith Alexander, General, USA, “Statement For the Record, Commander, US Cyber Command,” before the House Armed Services Committee, Washington, DC, 23 September 2010), (accessed December 30, 2011), 4.

[3] Robert M. Gates, “Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review Report, Department of Defense” (report to Congress, Washington, DC, January 2009), (accessed May 22, 2012).

[4] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms: Joint Publication 1-02 (as Amended through 15 May 2011) (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011).

[5] “Domain,” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, (accessed May 15, 2012).

[6] Patrick, D. Allen and Dennis P. Gilbert, “The Information Sphere Domain Increasing Understanding and Cooperation,” NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence Tallinn, Estonia, (accessed January 9, 2012).

[7] Arthur K. Cebrowski, Vice Admiral, USN and John H. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare – Its Origin and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 124, no. 1 (Jan 1998), 148.

[8] U.S. Air Force, Scientific Advisory Board, Report on Implications of Cyber Warfare, Volume 1: Executive Summary and Annotated Brief, SAB-TR-07-02 (Washington, DC, 2007), v.

[9] Steve H. McPerson and Glenn Zimmerman, “Cyberspace Control,” in Securing Freedom in the Global Commons, ed. Scott Jasper (Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2010), 87-89.

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