Consider Nitro Zeus. In the late 2000s, as The Times reported, the US government devised a detailed cyber attack plan that would disable sections of Iran’s air defenses, communications systems, and power grid. The plan provided President Barack Obama with a non-lethal means to neutralize Iranian military resources in case negotiations to end the country’s rogue nuclear enrichment program fail and Tehran seeks to retaliate.
The Nitro Zeus emergency plan remained active until the terms of the nuclear deal signed in 2015 were fulfilled, ready to offer gradual escalation without all-out war if diplomatic and economic pressures prove ineffective.
Since Nitro Zeus was finally sidelined, it’s difficult to assess the extent and likelihood of the collateral damage he might have caused. The integration of cyber weapons into a national security strategy shows a certain reluctance to fall short of the conventional – and more deadly – option. But whether it’s a drone strike or a hack into a telecommunications network, a cyberattack will always have negative repercussions for civilians and private businesses.
Counterintuitively, however, cyber weapons can also increase geopolitical stability.
Cyber attacks have helped countries achieve nuclear non-proliferation in ways that in the past would have required physical force and increased risk to personnel, said Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specializing in nuclear technology. nuclear strategy.
In 2007, Israeli fighter jets equipped with 500 pound bombs struck a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria. The facility was destroyed and Israel has come under international criticism for violating the sovereignty of another country. Ten North Korean scientists would have may have been killed in the attack.
The offensive US-Israel cyber operation known as Stuxnet, which was launched around the same time, achieved a similar goal – hampering a rogue nation’s enrichment efforts – but from afar, at no cost. human. The program destroyed nearly a fifth of Iran’s operating centrifuges and may have slowed down its nuclear program for up to two years. No one was reportedly physically injured or killed during the operation, which lasted for years. It may even have dissuaded Israel from launching a conventional attack on Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site.
What does responsible use of cyber weapons look like in the future?
If cyber warfare has the potential to channel conflict into a non-lethal form, now is the time – before it is fully tested on the battlefield – to craft both treaties and non-customary laws. documents governing its employment.