The rapid growth of digital technologies over the past few decades has brought immense benefits to how we live our lives.

At a top level we can shop and bank online, pay bills, research and book holidays and have instantaneous communication with family and friends who may be thousands of miles away.

The rapid advancement in computing power has also brought benefits to medical research, scientific endeavours, healthcare and many other areas. In the commercial world it has transformed the way organisations operate and enabled transformational new business models.

However it has also ushered in a world of cyber warfare. In the event of a conflict alongside conventional weapons like guns and missiles, future wars will also be fought by hackers using computer code to attack an enemy's infrastructure.

What is cyber warfare?

  • At its centre cyberwarfare is the use of digital attacks to disrupt computer systems with the aim of creating significant damage, death or destruction. 
  • A cyberattack can be launched immediately from any location, with little clear evidence to where the attack originates from. Typically it’s often difficult to definitively trace an attack to its source. 
  • These attacks can be extremely destructive. Together with data manipulation on a huge scale these attacks could shut down power supplies and cause significant damage to economies, for instance, by interfering with bank records. 
  • Modern economies, underpinned by computer networks that run everything from food distribution, healthcare, finance, communications and more are vulnerable to such attacks. Many of these systems are poorly designed and lack good protection.

How likely is cyber warfare?

  • Many experts warn that is a question of when rather than if. They believe it is likely to be significant feature of future conflicts. 
  • According to intelligence agencies more than 30 countries are developing offensive cyberattack capabilities, although most of these government hacking programmes are top secret. 
  • Some of the countries likely to carry out attacks include Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Russia has a highly advanced offensive cyber program and has already launched cyber-attacks on neighbouring countries. 
  • Of course the US and Western European countries also have their own cyber arsenal and have also probed other countries for cyber weaknesses.

How serious is it taken?

  • Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, and others regularly run training exercises to prepare for the outbreak of cyberwar. 
  • The NATO-backed Locked Shields is the most public example. It is an annual real-time network defence exercise in which national cyber defenders practise protection of national IT systems and critical infrastructure while under the intense pressure of a real-time and severe cyberattack. 
  • In the US Cyber National Mission Force teams defend the country by monitoring adversary activity, blocking attacks and attempting to defeat them. US Cyber Combat Mission Force teams conduct military cyber operations to support military commanders. The US Cyber Protection Force team defends sensitive information networks. 
  • In Europe, the European Defence Agency (EDA) looks after cyberspace attacks and considers cyberattack and defence capabilities as critical to military operations as are conventional land, sea and air operations. 
  • Last year European Union defence ministers also took place in an exercise called EU Cybrid, designed to test their strategy and decision making in the face of a major cyberattack on the European Union military organisations. The game aimed to help develop guidelines to be used in such a real-life crisis. It was the first exercise to involve politicians at a senior level.

In short, cyber warfare isn’t the product of science fiction writers, blue sky thinkers, or doomsters. It’s a reality and will become an ever greater threat.