Digital Conflict

By Kevin Coleman

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Kevin Coleman

A different type of arms race

A number of references lately compare cyber weapons with the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. Although our recent cyber situation and what we experienced during nuclear weapons development each represent an arms race, that is where the similarities end. Consider this; the latest threat intelligence on nuclear weapons shows that even with some being dismantled in 2010, there are still more than 22,000 total nuclear warheads in the world owned by nine different countries.   

Cyber threat analysis indicated that with the average the malware proliferation in 2010, the creation of 22,000 cyber weapons would take only 2.5 hours to create compared with the years it took to develop the current number of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear warhead owners

  1. Russia
  2. United States
  3. France
  4. China
  5. United Kingdom
  6. Israel
  7. Pakistan
  8. India
  9. North Korea

According to version 3.0 of the Cyber Commander’s eHandbook, nearly 180 countries have cyber weapons along with more than a dozen terrorist groups as well as a number of criminal organizations. Think about the massive infrastructure needed to develop a nuclear weapon and also a rocket to move the warhead from launch point to its intended target. Now consider the infrastructure needed to develop a cyber weapon, which is next to nothing.  Nuclear weapons require highly enriched uranium, in contrast to cyber weapons that require no restricted or exotic materials. Finally, compare the cost of developing nuclear weapons versus the cost of developing cyber weapons. The U.S. nuclear weapons program spent $5.8 trillion between the early 1940s and 1996 alone. An ad that appeared on a hacking board stated 24-hour distributed denial-of-service of any website for $599 – what a bargain.

There is no comparison. The broad availability of cyber weapons and their modest cost clearly differentiate the cyber arms race from what we experienced in the Cold War. It is time we treat this for what it is – something new and different.

Posted by Kevin Coleman on Jan 05, 2012 at 2:46 PM

Reader Comments

Mon, Jan 9, 2012

Actually there is no comparison for a totally different, and much more important reason. A nuclear weapon, say 1 megaton, likely kills people, physically destroys land, buildings, etc., and renders the land unusable for a long period of time after that, not to mention any likely retaliation effects of the same magnitude. A cyber weapon, even one that knocks out power or banking, will have a short term effect but not a long lasting one (setting aside a cyber attack on a dam leading to a flood which may kill some people and render an area unusable for a period). In any case, the comparison to the arms race has nothing to do with the weapons per se, but with the concept of outspending the adversaries vis-a-vis how we outspent the Soviet Union, and that is a very viable comparison which the author ends up confirming - and determining that it is indeed new and different - and thus requires a new mode of thought. I don't think we can outspend in this case, so we need to out-think. And that requires a new mindset not constrained by conventional targeting and mission planning.

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