Kinetic warfare continues to evolve, though its brutality is enduring (as witnessed by the current war in Ukraine). But in the shadows, a preview of future conflict is playing out—that hybrid, non-kinetic future war.
Cyberwarfare, electronic warfare, information operations, intelligence, and space technology all came into play in the lead-up to the Ukraine war, and remain salient. The ongoing conflict offers many lessons that can help the United States and its allies not only to assist the Ukrainians in resisting Russian aggression, but also to prepare the West to prevail in future conflicts. All sides are keenly watching these “gray-zone” tactics play out, hoping to determine how best to use them for the battlespaces of tomorrow.
Prior to its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin had already used cyber and informational warfare, with varying levels of effect, in Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Thus, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February, many experts expected to see coordinated, large-scale offensive cyber and electronic warfare operations aimed at severing communications in much of Ukraine. Also expected was a replay of previous power grid tactics meant to undermine confidence and stability in the government of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
The expected attacks did, in fact, come in the early days of the war. But many were stymied or blunted by cyber defense preparation, aggressive remediation, and timely assistance from allied partners and private-sector technology and cybersecurity companies who helped identify problems and provide solutions to Ukrainian networks. Microsoft, for example, identified and attributed a vast network of Russian activity that preceding physical battlespace movements in the war.
Today, Russia continues to pursue aggressive hybrid actions in tandem with brutal land, air, and sea warfare. And allied and private sector partners continue to help Ukraine battle back. Through it all, these players as well as other world nations are watching to determine what has worked, and what has not. Those who learn the lessons now playing out in Ukraine will gain a greater understanding of how to deal with future shadow-war challenges—and, perhaps, how to use non-kinetic tools to deter or defuse kinetic conflicts.
The Evolution of Cyber
When U.S. Cyber Command was officially stood up a little over a decade ago, strategists saw the need to invest in and understand our vulnerabilities in the internet domain, as well as those of our adversaries. Various strategies have been implemented since, albeit with fits and starts. Recently, significant attention has been devoted to boosting domestic cyber resilience, establishing a network of international partners, and increasing cooperation between the government and the private sector on matters of critical infrastructure protection.
For their part, adversaries and allies alike continue to test out various strategic roles of cyber. Historically, the “red line” for cyber operations has been ambiguous, unlike the casus belli for conventional warfare. This has caused new policy dilemmas which are as yet unresolved. In recent months, for instance, NATO has discussed that Russian cyber attacks on any Alliance partner could activate Article 5 collective defense provisions. But what, exactly, is considered a substantive attack? Because of a lack of clarity on this front, it has led to ambiguous interpretations—and emboldened hostile actors to press forward with their offensive cyber operations despite the threat of a theoretical western non-kinetic or physical response. Hostile nations can likewise be expected to harness cyber against a range of vulnerabilities in the critical infrastructure, military establishments, and civil society mechanisms of western nations.
At the same time, multilateral cyber relationships in both the government and private sector are both growing and evolving. The United States has a critical role to play in this development. Because of its international standing, the U.S. needs to move beyond highbrow agreements to day-to-day engagements that can build trust and improve our overall cyber resilience and architecture.
The threat is very real. China, for example, is well known to be looking for a competitive advantage in the cyber battlespace, and its cyber espionage teams have consistently targeted the defense industrial bases of the U.S. and our allies in an attempt to understand, assess, and seek vulnerabilities. This represents part of a larger—and disquieting—pattern; in time of both peace and war, skilled cyber adversaries will look to target and disrupt the data-rich network capabilities needed to properly provide command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).
Just as space is getting more crowded every day with additional government and commercial actors, so too is cyber space. Since the invasion of Ukraine, a plethora of new actors has emerged. They include state and non-state sponsored entities, enigmatic “hacktivists,” and criminal syndicates. All of these actors will continue to use cyber as a peace time tool for espionage, vulnerability exploration and exploitation, supply chain injections, and activities just below the threshold of armed conflict. Some, such as the Iranians, have continued to test the bounds of these vague thresholds in its proxy shadow wars with Israel and the United States. The addition of a swirl of hacktivists into the battlefields could likewise lead to missteps and accusations of state-backing or false flag operations meant to elicit a more aggressive response.
Electronic Warfare, Quantum, and Space
Rapidly advancing technological developments in electronic warfare (EW) will be a major factor in any future conflict as well. The U.S., its allies, and its adversaries continue to pour resources into the development and environmental architectures needed to operate these systems amid a live fire conflict or as part of shadow campaigns.
As scholar Dean Cheng noted in the Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength, “Chinese military writings suggest that a great deal of attention has been focused on developing an integrated computer network and electronic warfare (INEW) capability…allow[ing] the PLA to reconnoiter a potential adversary’s computer systems in peacetime, influence opponent decision-makers by threatening those same systems in times of crisis, and disrupt or destroy information networks and systems by cyber and electronic warfare means in the event of conflict.” The preponderant strategic goal of achieving “information dominance” sees Chinese electronic warfare capabilities as a complementary addition to the PRC’s psychological and kinetic warfare.
Last year, after a wargame “failed miserably,” outgoing Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John E. Hyten noted that, over the last 30 years, the U.S. had built its warfighting concepts on the assumption that it would enjoy unparalleled information dominance. That assumption is no longer valid. China and Russia have invested heavily in building electronic, cyber, and space warfare capabilities to severely inhibit our military’s ability to communicate fully and quickly. Building resilient systems, refining our own EW and counter-EW capabilities, and harnessing the electromagnetic spectrum in our favor will be crucial in any future conflict.
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory recently made significant headway in advancing the prospect of quantum electronic warfare. By using lasers to create Rydberg atoms, researchers were able to build a quantum sensor to detect the complete radio spectrum. This breakthrough could “unleash radical new potentials for military communications, spectrum awareness, and quantum electronic warfare.”
For the military applications of quantum technology, the U.S. Defense Science Board has concluded that quantum sensing, quantum computers, and quantum communications are the most promising fields. Quantum sensing will lead to significant improvements in submarine detection and prove useful in positioning and navigation. It could enable military personnel to detect underground structures, nuclear materials, electromagnetic emissions and enemy forces. Quantum computations will advance machine learning, which would enhance kinetic warfare systems by aiding the targeting algorithms of autonomous weapons—something that would revolutionize the battlespace. The government could also make use of post-quantum encryption (PQE). PQE remains a top priority for the National Security Agency (NSA), which is developing quantum key distribution and quantum key cryptography to protect military and U.S. government communications and information. PQE would be resistant to both traditional and quantum-enabled decrypting software.
Future success in electronic warfare hinges on making technological advancements in artificial intelligence, achieving quantum superiority first, using quantum sensing and computation to develop advanced capabilities, and protecting our systems with post-quantum encryption.
Information and Cognitive Warfare in the Age of AI
Much has been written about informational warfare tactics of Russia and China in recent years. Recently, discussions have turned to the concept of “cognitive warfare,” in which a nation state tries to alter public opinion and the resolve of leaders via technological developments in “AI, neuroscience, and digital applications like social media.” Col. Koichiro Takagi, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, points out that, in terms of current technology, the PLA has considered the use of disinformation, preparation for operations of strategic nuclear weapons units, and various military exercises for intimidation purposes. Disinformation tactics could include “deception of enemy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities by electromagnetic or cyber means to mislead the commander’s judgment.”
Increasingly, the use of synthetic content in influence campaigns and technological advances in “deepfakes” for visual and voice are creating issues in today’s fast moving digital environment. Even a subpar deepfake can circulate quickly. And, even if it is promptly identified as a fake, an initial presumption of legitimacy can produce the intended cognitive effect on an adversary.
In informational and cognitive warfare, it is essential to get independent, truthful information to those living behind autocratic lines. To this end, the U.S. must prioritize the development of technologies that can circumvent the censorship of our adversaries and preserve the privacy of those receiving the information.
Digital authoritarianism dynamics and technological advances around the world, especially from states such as China, will continue to challenge U.S. national security and American interests. Massive data mining collects vast stores of information that can jeopardize operational security and potentially produce cognitive effects on military personnel. Additionally, there have been rapid advancements in ubiquitous technical surveillance (UTS), facial recognition, and data collection from smartphones and vehicles. Advances in artificial intelligence will allow efficient sorting through these data inputs, producing valuable targeting information. As such, understanding how China could exploit its surveillance and censorship technology—and how it might exploit its ability to collect sensitive, personal data on millions of Americans—is essential.
In response, the U.S. can lead the way by developing technology, software, and algorithms to help repressed populations counter censorship and disinformation. This potential has been put on displace in recent weeks by Ukraine’s use of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation to counter Russian information operations and allow Ukrainians freedom of communication in a denied environment.
Non-Kinetic Warfare Can't Win a Future War...but Can Help Define It
If organized and conditioned properly, non-kinetic tactics (both current and future) can play a key role in any overall strategy. However, they cannot, by themselves, win a battle. As Gen. Patrick Sanders, Britain's chief of general staff, recently put it in the context of Ukraine: "You can't cyber your way across a river."
Hard, kinetic tools still dominate an active battlespace, but hybrid activities can help shape battlefields. To persevere, those seeking strategic advantage in future warfare will need to integrate leading-edge technologies into their broader arsenals of conventional military tactics, systems, and strategy.
This piece originally appeared in the American Foreign Policy Council's Defense Dossier