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Cyber Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay by Billy Pope is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Cyberspace is enabling new forms of communication, influence, awareness, and power for people around the world. Families use cyberspace to communicate face-to-face over great distances. Financial institutions execute global business and commodity trades at the speed of light through the cyberspace domain. The world’s citizens are granted unprecedented access to information, facilitating more awareness and understanding than at any time in history. Yet the same cooperative domain that fosters so much good for mankind also offers a tremendous source of power. The antithesis of the mutually beneficial electronic environment is a cyberspace where competition and fear overshadow collaboration. This conundrum, however, is not new. Hobbes, in his fundamental law of nature, warns, “That every man, ought to endeavour Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of Warre.”[i] Cyberspace will continue to civilize. As the domain matures, however, so too will the forces that aim to use the cyberspace domain to project power.

Hobbes’ Leviathan





Before diving into the concept of cyber power, one must first frame the term power itself. Power, in its most basic form equates to might: the ability to compel a person or group to acquiesce through force. Thucydides captured this concept in his artful depiction of the Melian Dialog, penning the famous phrase, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[ii] Hobbes, too, warned that power possessed is power to be used, suggesting every man lives in a state of constant competition with every other man.[iii] In this way, power is the ultimate arbiter, framing both what a man can do and what he should do in the same breath.

The close cousin to might is coercion. Thomas Schelling suggests “Coercion requires finding a bargain, arranging for him to be better off doing what we want — worse off not doing what we want — when he takes the threatened penalty into account.”[iv] Unlike a strategy centered on might, coercion requires insight. Military strategists and theorists who emerged from the Cold War coalesced around a single basic tenet of coercion: one must attempt to thoroughly understand an adversary before coercion can succeed.[v] Hearkening Sun Tzu’s notion that one must “know the enemy,” this community of great minds suggests in-depth analysis helps determine the bargaining chips in the coercion chess match.[vi]

Coercion is not limited to massive Cold War-styled conflicts. Non-state actors and other asymmetric threats may also be influenced through coercive strategies. Emile Simpson, in his book War From the Ground Up, infuses current counterinsurgency strategies with Aristotle’s concepts of logos, ethos, and pathos to distill the concepts of modern coercion.[vii] Simpson argues the vital importance of information as a source of power. He suggests the very definition of success in asymmetric conflicts is framed by one’s ability to compel an adversary to accept an imposed strategic narrative. Simpson writes, “In this sense, success or failure in war are perceived states in the minds of one’s intended audience.”[viii] In wars where annihilation cannot even be considered as a feasible strategy, one must win with ideas. Coercion offers a framework of thought that centers on this very approach.

Artist’s depiction of cyberspace, Feb 2011 via Cameroon’s Ministry of Defense





Why focus so much of an essay on cyber power theory to a lengthy discussion on traditional forms of power? Quite simply, cyber power is still just power at its core. Cyber power will not change the nature of war. Cyber power, at least in the foreseeable future, will not reorganize the international consortium of states, leaving the Westphalian system to flounder in a new electronic world order. Cyber power offers tremendous opportunities to enhance how people interact, cooperate, and even fight. It does not, however, make traditional forms of power obsolete.

Overzealous futurists exuberantly claim that cyber power is a game changer, saying things like, “Cyber war is real; it happens at the speed of light; it is global; it skips the battlefield; and, it has already begun.”[ix] The attuned strategist will peer through the chafe, realizing that cyber power offers new, innovative methods by which to project power. The same savvy practitioner will also appreciate that power and conflict are grounded in basic human requirements, psychology, and relationships. Neither Thucydides’ realist notions of fear, honor, and interests, nor Keohane’s collaborative concepts of cooperation and interconnectedness were developed with cyberspace in mind.[x] Cyberspace, and in turn any notion of cyber power, however, contains these concepts in troves.

What, then, is cyber power specifically? This author argues it takes two forms. First, cyber power extends and accentuates existing forms of military power. It helps shape the battlefield through intelligence collection and information operations. In some cases it facilitates military effects that were previously only achievable through kinetic means. Second, cyber power is a unique political instrument. Most military professionals are all too familiar with the elements of national power marched out during professional education courses: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. Cyber power connects to each of these components but also offers new options. Stronger than diplomacy and sanctions, yet not to the level of Clausewitzean war, cyber power expands the spectrum of power projection available to policy-makers.

The Aviationist, March 2013





In its militaristic form, cyber power has proven its worth as an accoutrement to traditional military engagements. Two historical examples of air power employment serve as cases in point. When the United States repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the American Air Force disabled Iraq’s integrated air defense system by permanently destroying radar sites, anti-aircraft systems, and electrical switching stations.[xi] In 2007, the Israeli Air Force penetrated Syrian airspace en route to an alleged nuclear reactor at Dier-ez-Zor. Israeli pilots simply flew past Syria’s air defense systems undetected. While Israeli officials have never confirmed the details of this operation, it is widely accepted that a cyber attack blinded the air defense systems, achieving the desired effect, while preserving the systems and their associated personnel from physical destruction.[xii] By producing military effects, cyber power enhances more traditionally understood forms of power in terms of might and projection.

The second framework of cyber power, however, places more emphasis on the combination of interdependence and leverage than military might. In this way, the concept of coercion again takes center stage. The United States serves as an appropriate case study. America is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. The U.S., after all, invented the Internet and gave rise to the framework for cyberspace. Until very recently, the United States maintained control over the mechanisms that form the central nervous system of the Internet and its interdependent connections.[xiii] This outright advantage, however, also translates into a serious vulnerability. The U.S. and other similarly connected nations are more dependent on cyberspace for normal societal functions like banking, municipal utilities, and interstate commerce.

Prominent powers are incentivized to exercise cyber power to achieve political effects while attempting to limit vulnerabilities to the same types of actions. Largely non-lethal and quite influential against nations that find themselves dependent upon the domain, cyber power offers attractive options. Some states will attempt more cooperative approaches to limit vulnerability, as Keohane’s post-hegemonic theoretical approach would suggest. At a minimum, capable entities will communicate their abilities to exert influence in the cyber domain to influence the strategic narrative Emile Simpson so aptly describes. The ability to project power in the cyber domain becomes an important source of influence alongside economic, military, informational, and diplomatic leverage. It is in this grand-strategic purview that cyber power holds the most potential.

The difference between these two aspects of cyber power is both strategic and philosophical. In the militaristic sense, cyber might conjures a Clausewitzean approach where engagements form the foundation of strategy and digital blood is the price of victory.[xiv] A strategy centered on coercion, leverage, and dependence, however, falls into the realm of Sun Tzu and Liddell Hart where perfect strategies involve very little actual confrontation on the way to achieving political objectives.[xv] Familiar in concept yet quite novel in execution, these two methods produce power where none previously existed. Both approaches, however, must be considered as parts of a greater whole that includes the full spectrum of power and political will. Cyber power is poignant and increasingly relevant, but it is not sufficient in and of itself.

While some soothsayers predict cyberspace will reshape the global landscape and the power structures that govern it, this author suggests otherwise. So long as people depend on the physical domains of air, land, and sea for basic survival needs, the physical powers used to protect these domains will remain relevant. That is not to say, however, that cyber power is flaccid. Nations that depend on cyberspace can be held at risk through the exploitation of cyber power for political effects. Whether through direct engagement or a more indirect approach, cyber power is capable of swaying political decisions in the same way others sources of power influence policy. Cyber power is a force to consider as military leaders and statesmen alike contemplate all dimensions of national power.


[i] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Rev. student ed, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 92.

[ii] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, [Rev. ed, The Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, Eng., Baltimore]: Penguin Books, 1972), 406.

[iii] Hobbes, Leviathan, 88.

[iv] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 4.

[v] Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed (New York: Longman, 1999), 404; John J Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001), 338; Emile Simpson, War from the Ground up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 206; Robert Anthony Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1996), 20. This list is not exhaustive, but is representative of the importance the community of scholars places on understanding one’s adversary.

[vi] Sun Tzu, The Illustrated Art of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 205.

[vii] Simpson, War from the Ground up, 202–203.

[viii] Simpson, War from the Ground up, 61.

[ix] Richard A. Clarke, Cyber War: The next Threat to National Security and What to Do about It, 1st ed (New York: Ecco, 2010), 30–31.

[x] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 20–21; Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, 1st Princeton classic ed, A Princeton Classic Edition (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005), 243.

[xi] Michael R Gordon and Trainor, The Generals’ War: The inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), 112.

[xii] Charles W. Douglass, 21st Century Cyber Security: Legal Authorities and Requirements, Strategic Research Project (U.S. Army War College, March 22, 2012), 14.

[xiii] “NTIA Announces Intent to Transition Key Internet Domain Name Functions | NTIA,” accessed May 7, 2014, http://www.ntia.doc.gov/press-release/2014/ntia-announces-intent-transition-key-internet-domain-name-functions; “US Transitioning Internet DNS Control,” accessed May 20, 2014, http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2014/03/us-transitioning-internet-dns-control.

[xiv] Carl Von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 128, http://site.ebrary.com/id/10578581.

[xv] Basil Henry Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2nd rev. ed (New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Meridian, 1991), 324.

Wargame, Red Dragon: Developer Interview

Eugen Systems released an heir to World In Conflict with their Real Time Strategy “Wargame” series. Their most recent edition, Red Dragon, occurs in Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and coastal Russian Far East. The reason we were intruiged is that this new version included naval battles.  Now, turns out the naval battles are by no means anything you’d expect for 80’s warships… think more WWII with helicopters, F-18’s, and CIWS… but some of your dear CIMSEC editors and members played and had a pretty good time. It’s hard to argue naval realism when in ground combat you get to pick from several hundred units from 17 countries. Hell, one of the single player campaigns is you defending Hong Kong when Thatcher decides to push continued British presence. Capital!

As the last part of CIMSEC’s Wargames week, we decided that amongst our discussion of exercises and gaming that hone nations for war and war-fighters for survival, we would ask some question to the folks who build games and exercises for fun. The Eugen System team was kind enough to have a chat with us:

Q: What games inspired your team?

A: Our main inspiration for the Wargame series are old strategy games many of us at the studio used to play while younger: the Close Combat & Steel Panther series. One is real-time, the other turn-based, and our goal was to do as good a simulation and “easy to handle, hard to master” as the former, with the latter’s technical database, wide array of nations, huge number of scenarios, …

Q: Unlike many RTS games, Wargame has hundreds of different units–all asymmetric and unique. Through modeling and developing these, has your team come to any conclusions?

A: Well, by modeling so many units, we are highlighting the trend and doctrine of every nation: France’s “speed over armor” attitude, resulting from its tradition of military interventions in Africa ; Britain’s emphasis on armor and range, due to its Cold War allocated battlefield, the North German Plains …

Some of those are well-known to us from the start, but for some less known armies, such doctrine are only revealed after some time, while they are starting to build in our armory.

Q: What did you learn from your last game, Air Land Battle (ALB), that you applied to Red Dragon?

A: ALB’s main influence on RD can be found in map design. There had been some criticisms in the previous installment about maps that were considered too small or too “bottlenecked”. In RD, we have made sure to address this by making bigger and more open maps. Added to that the fact that river or sea and mountain are no longer impassable terrain, and you will see that RD’s maps are much more maneuver-friendly.

We have also taken into consideration many of the UI request to make the armory easier to use, and help new players and non-military buffs more at ease browsing among 1400+ units.
Artillery and air-defense balance were also deeply reworked using ALB’s lessons.

Q: Outside of Naval Warfare, what is the greatest difference between ALB and Red Dragon?

A: Maps. As said above, the new amphibious ability for many vehicles and the fact that mountain are no longer purely impassable gives the game a new feeling. You can maneuver on large scale, always try to outflank your opponent. No bottleneck will make a part of the battlefield secure because you’ve left a defensive force there. RD’s battlefields are much more open that ALB’s were.

Q: After Red Dragon, does the team have the desire to develop an expansion that really fleshes out more urban warfare?

A: We’re not there yet …

Q: What other conflicts have your team considered?

A: Wold War 2 of course …

But WW2 was already covered by many other games, including our own RUSE when we started thinking about Wargame, so we decided to go for something more original, less exploited. Hence why we chose “Cold War gone hot”, which offered the opportunity for many plausible scenarios and provided us with tons of combat vehicles to model and use in-game.

As for other possible Cold War conflicts, after European Escalation, we had considered several battlefields for the next installment: the two most logical were the Northern Front (Scandinavia, which we ended up covering in ALB) and the Southern Front (Mediterranean). We chose the former because Sweden offered a unique roaster of indigenous vehicles, bringing alone more new vehicles than the whole Mediterranean countries together would.

Q: What is your biggest regret with the games?

A: To have left some nations aside, although they could have been included in our previous installment. To make a nation viable, we have to model some 60-80 units, so we can’t add that many nations at a time.

In EE, Dutch and Belgian units had to be left aside, and Finland in ALB. That is not without regret that we have left those nations aside …

Q: What’s your biggest pride with the games?

A: Our biggest pride is when former (or even active!) military servicemen, especially those whom had served during the Cold War, are telling us they are playing our games and are enjoying the realistic feel of it. Then, we allow ourselves to think Wargame lives to what we wanted it to be when we stated the series.

Q: What’s your favorite unit?

A: Personally speaking, I’m fond of wheeled vehicles. I favor speed over armor. Call it national bias, but I think my very favorite one has to be found among the light wheeled tanks/tank destroyers, like the AMX-10 RC, the BTR-70 Z halo or the ERC-90 Sagaie. Had I to choose one, the latter one might be my favorite, for it emphasizes everything I like: speed, stealth, decent firepower, … and looks cool!

Q: What is the most interesting thing you learned from studying the historical background to the game?

A: ABLE ARCHER exercises, in November 1983.

Cold War is often taught or learned at school through different crisis (Cuban Missile Crisis, European Missile Crisis …) and “proxy wars” (Vietnam, Afghanistan, …) but never had we ever heard of how close the year 1983, and especially ABLE ARCHER, had brought us on the verge of WW3. This was completely new to us, and became the nucleus of Wargame: European Escalation’s “alternative scenarios” concept.

Gaming the Game: Fighting on the Playing Fields

Written by Jonathon James Nicholas Edwards: a scholar ever loyal to the crown. He loves bees and Oxford.

Games are a natural educational tool. Crows can be seen tumbling with one another through the air, kittens play with dead mice before they hunt for live ones, and the Duke of Wellington is widely credited with saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.

However they have their limitations. In reference to the Duke of Wellington’s quotation, the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold said “Alas! disasters have been prepared in those playing-fields as well as victories; disasters due to inadequate mental training – to want of application, knowledge, intelligence, lucidity.” One of the primary limitations of most games is the unavoidable way that a canny, unscrupulous player can use the rules to “game” the system.

I know this from experience, because I’ve done it. I used to fence and made it to some regional competitions. Given the sport’s provenance as an activity for gentlemen, and the risk of injury from flying metal, fencing has strict codes of conduct and penalties for breaking them. Any behaviour that endangers or disrespects another player can be penalised. Failure to correctly salute an opponent or referee causes a fencer to forfeit the match. In general fencers are expected to maintain composure at all times.

In one match I faced an opponent who was much faster, more skilled and more experienced. In any fair match he should have won. However he was known to have a short temper, and I reasoned that I could goad him into breaking the rules. I fenced to frustrate. I dodged his lunges, and attacked with small cuts to the arms that just caught. Although my opponent took an early lead, he was clearly annoyed. After I won a few points in this way, he flung his sword on the ground. Citing it as a safety violation, the referee gave him a red card, one step away from the black card that would cost him the match.

The fight continued in this way, until my opponent was one point from victory, but one temper tantrum from defeat. As he attempted to stay calm, he broke his concentration, and I took a few more points, which antagonized him further. Ultimately he won the match, but my manipulation of the rules meant it wasn’t the easy victory for him that it should have been.

Rules are necessary to implement any game, however sometimes they subvert the purpose of the exercise; rather than being a measure of the best fencer, our match turned on my opponent’s ability to keep calm. This is humorous in a high school fencing match (although not for my opponent) but in situations with a direct practical application like war games it can be a serious problem. It is therefore useful to remember that any game has inherent limitations. Organizers and players must set up the game as carefully as possible, but recognize their limits. In the end we hope that they produce more people like Wellington, and fewer people like me.

Gardening in a “Barren” Officer Corps

This piece by Benjamin Armstrong – author, pilot, and patriot – first appeared at War on the Rocks. It joins the defensive line with Joe Byerly’s piece at The Bridge and Matthew Hipple’s piece here at CIMSEC.

A recent opinion piece at The American Conservative had a number of military officers scratching their heads. In “An Officer Corps that Can’t Score,” William Lind purports to discuss how careerism in the military breeds “habits of defeat.”  He tells us that:

Defeat in Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers, men such as Col. John Boyd USAF, Col. Mike Wyly USMC, and Col. Huba Wass de Czege USA, each of whom led a major effort to reorient his service. Today, the landscape is barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change.

This is quite a claim, and rather damning of today’s officer corps with a very broad brushstroke. But is it true? Based on my personal and professional experiences in the U.S. Navy, I would say no. Lind errs on the side of being insulting to some of the dedicated men and women in uniform, but that does not really worry me. They have thick skin. More seriously, he leads his civilian readers astray, leaving them with an inaccurate depiction of a military completely unused to debate.

One needs only to start here at War on the Rocks to see that there is debate by active duty and reserve personnel about the present and future of our armed forces and the use of military means in the 21st century. True, one publication certainly does not indicate a healthy state of discourse. But one need only look around a bit to find one.

CLICK TO READ THE REST AT WAR ON THE ROCKS…

BJ Armstrong is a naval officer, PhD candidate in War Studies with King’s College, London, and a member of the Editorial Board at the U.S. Naval Institute. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author alone. They do not represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.