Analyst View: Modern warfare poses a higher threat than cyber attacks

Analyst view: Modern warfare poses a higher threat than cyber attacks 

By Ian Thornton-Trump

This is going to be hard news to digest but for some of us who saw the fall of the Soviet Union on TV it may sound eerily familiar. Scholars attribute the fall of the Soviet Union as a culmination of several factors such as [1]:

The Internal weakness of Soviet political and economic institutions.

The Soviet Union used much of its economic resources in maintaining nuclear and military arsenals.

The Communist party was not accountable to the people.

Some political scientists assert that the above conditions set the stage for a rise of nationalism and the desire for sovereignty within various republics including Russia, the Baltic Republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Ukraine, Georgia and others, which proved to be the most immediate cause for disintegration of the USSR. The last gasp of the hard-line communists played out in spectacular fashion when the 1991 coup d'état attempt, also known as the August Coup, failed to take control of the country from Mikhail Gorbachev. That coup failure cemented the Baltic independence. By September, less than a month later most countries of the world recognized the sovereignty of the Baltic states.[2] [3] It’s easy to see these factors to a greater or lesser extent reflected in nearly all the G-7 nation states: in fact, if you replace “Soviet Union” with “Capitalist Union” and the former “Soviet Republics” with “US States” as an intellectual exercise, it becomes an interesting “fall of” narrative to explore. When disinformation originating from Russia aimed at exposing ethnic, religious, social tensions targets the G-7 countries, it would appear that “a fall” is part of the protagonist agenda.


The US economy can arguably be described as a key driver of the economic performance of the G-7 countries. To the casual observer, some US investors appear to have more faith in the future prosperity of global corporations than in the deeply polarized US governmental and economic institutions. This sentiment is present amid a climate of intense debate over whether major corporations are paying their fair share in tax at a time of heightened economic anxiety due the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The prosperity and prospects of the G-7 is intrinsically linked to the exponential growth of global corporations.


The economic trend of continued and increasing nuclear, cyber, and military spending by the G-7 states against protagonists such as Russia and China amid cyber and physical espionage campaigns of varying intensity, is ever present in the media. The calculations of potential losses attributed to Global Cybercrime are currently predicted “to increase by nearly 15 per cent on a yearly basis over the next four years to reach $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, from $3tn in 2015,” California research company Cybersecurity Ventures has said.[4] According to US-headquartered research firm, Gartner, worldwide IT spending [note - not just cyber security spend] will total $4.2 trillion in 2021 (8.6% up on 2020), rising to $4.4 trillion in 2022 (5.3% up on 2021). [5] The spend vs loss is in favour of loss by more than a 2:1 ratio – hardly sustainable. It’s easy to see that most of that loss will be borne by the advanced, digital economies of the G-7.


Political will, continuity investment and ambitious foreign policy objectives have always been a struggle for the G-7 countries due to term limits and sometimes sudden electoral changes in democratic governments. One of the advantages the regimes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have over the G-7 is they can plan and execute plans over five, ten or more years, far longer time periods to achieve policy objectives. The counter point to this line of thinking is a deep understanding that nearly every leader on the planet is beholden to someone or some group.


In Russia, it’s the largely influential business figures with interests in the petrochemical industry- the ex-generals and post-soviet communist party apparatchiks who form Vladimir Putin’s inner circle – so long as Putin keeps their support, no one gets “politically” hurt. The dependency of Russia on extractive resources, specifically oil and natural gas revenues allows the G-7 at least some degree of leverage and control over Russian behaviour. It is not unlikely that tensions with Russia are exacerbated by the growing clamour of G-7 nations to move towards a more sustainable green economy. This global trend would directly impact the future prosperity of a nation once described by a scholar as having a GDP lower than Italy’s despite being ”heavily over-reliant on energy exports”.


China’s economy is highly reliant on the western open markets and investment but is experiencing a period of diversification and growth. An example of this is the Belt and Road Initiative, which has longer-term economic implications. There is no doubt that China is needed by western economies to manufacture cost-effective consumer goods, but China’s economy is also very dependent on being the world’s manufacturing base. A sudden departure of that investment which drives economic prosperity would have profound social and political consequences for the ruling party and President Xi Jinping.


By applying a simplistic macro-economic model of analysis, one can see the leavers that G-7 can pull to exert behavioural pressure on Russia – it’s the threat of economic sanctions and restricting Russia’s ability to sell that oil on global exchanges and for China – it’s controlling investment into the Chinese economy and facilitating the outsourcing manufacturing – especially technology. Although these leavers can and do exert some control, both Russia and China can play a geopolitical “long game” and wait for public sentiment and geopolitical opportunity to pursue their aspirations. Short of sponsoring insurgency groups within China or Russia and or initiating a proxy war Western economic sanctions remain the most potent tool western countries leverage to discourage unreasonable behaviour.


Contrast these governments with the G-7 where the political system is influenced – to a large extent (the US) or to a lesser extent (EU) – by large global corporations that can help shape public opinion and are in a position to finance parties with policy positions they deem are commercially beneficial. Conversely, political parties in G-7 countries are constrained to a “short game” election and re-election cycle. One could argue that in some cases, majority shareholders in major companies wield more power and influence over western economic prospects than the governments themselves; occasionally western governments attempt to curtail adverse corporate behaviours, but this has generally had very limited success and/or impact. The protagonist nations continue to leverage the inherent instabilities of the global economy and open access to information against western interests. Solutions to this confrontation between the G-7 and “the protagonist regimes” have largely been achieved though legislative means – with limited success.


Pro-Russia actors, assisted by Chinese threat actors and supported to a lesser extent by Iran and North Korea, are seeking to undermine western alliances to present fewer effective roadblocks to their own foreign policy objectives. Russia’s demand of forbidding Ukraine to join NATO in exchange for ending a military build-up and potential escalation along the Ukraine-Russia border, and China’s insistence that Taiwan and the South China Sea are Chinese sovereign territory are some contemporary examples. Hostile actors are using cyber warfare – a western-defined term – to destabilise these G-7/NATO and EU alliances with a persistent campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, augmented with a major focus on cyber warfare deception.


The Russian cyber warfare ruse has really been defined by a cyber security industry narrative of Advanced Persistent Threat and cybercriminal activity related to targeting G-7 civilian organisations and governments with successful network penetration, exploitation, espionage, and ransomware attacks. No one can argue that Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have not managed to become effective in this capability, and as a result, the G-7 cyber security industry was created, led, and supported by the world’s global corporations. That has been positive for the G-7 economies as that “cost” incurred by the protagonists has turned into some “financial opportunities” for defending firms and service providers: that’s good news.


The bad news is that Russia-based threat actors don’t believe in “just” cyber warfare as a distinct and unique category of attack. They believe in warfare in all its aspects, and while G-7 firms and victims battle malware infections and ransomware attacks, threat actors have developed far more horrifying capabilities.


However, in a paper published in January 2021, which included a careful analysis of the VOSTOK 2018 Russian military exercise activities, it appears Russia re-defined “cyber” warfare and expanded cyber capabilities beyond any traditional view into something a whole lot more dangerous. Despite years of warnings and analysis no one seems to be prepared for what the Russians have defined as a new “cyber” capability, according to Dr. Peter Vincent Pry in his report RUSSIA: EMP THREAT. [6]


The document is concerning in its assessments and conclusions, and provides stark warnings that the Russian military has developed, tested, trained and practised the recovery from, and are prepared to use nuclear and non-nuclear high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) weapons delivered by strategic rocket forces, hypersonic weapon systems and potentially clandestine means as a part of their “cyber” warfare plan, as casually as launching a national critical infrastructure attack via cyber means. In short, a DOS of national critical infrastructure on a regional level. What is not mentioned in the report is that even power-related and IT systems hardened against an EMP and in a “off” state may also be rendered inoperable due to the induced voltages of the EMP effect.


In a quoted section of the report:


“A single nuclear weapon detonated 60 kilometres above NATO HQ in Brussels would generate a paralyzing HEMP field from Poland to Scotland, like a magic carpet to the English Channel.”


“Any nuclear weapon detonated in outer space, 30 kilometres or higher, will generate a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) damaging all kinds of electronics, blacking-out electric grids and collapsing other life-sustaining critical infrastructures. No blast, thermal, fallout or effects other than HEMP are experienced in the atmosphere and on the ground.”


And finally, perhaps the most disconcerting key judgment from the paper is a change in how Russian military doctrine regards the use of HEMP.


“Russian military doctrine, because HEMP attacks electronics, categorizes nuclear HEMP attack as a dimension of Information Warfare, Electronic Warfare and Cyber Warfare, which are modes of warfare operating within the electromagnetic spectrum.”


Marine General Jim Mattis is quoted as saying: “Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” That quote provides small comfort to those currently working to prevent critical national infrastructure from succumbing to an impactful cyber-attack when perhaps efforts are better spent planning to bring electricity back online no matter what sort of cyber, geomagnetic or HEMP attack takes place. Imaginative approaches will likely significantly improve responses to any such event.


The change of Russian military doctrine seems to neglect any mention of the likelihood and potential of civilian “collateral” damage of a HEMP attack to anyone life-dependent on an electronic medical device, or subsequent attributable casualties such as fires and explosions at manufacturing and processing industries, which have suffered a loss of control from the sudden termination of the national grid.


The G-7 would consider a nuclear HEMP or non-nuclear HEMP attack to be a mass casualty event and respond proportionately as best as they are able. The author of the paper may be somewhat overstating the effect of HEMP - not every single military system globally would be inoperable. The political consequences of a potential Russian HEMP attack on G7/NATO or EU nation is likely to elicit a kinetic response by military assets on the periphery and outside the affected area.


The challenges individuals, corporate actors and governmental agencies face from the protagonists on the internet, be it APT actors or cyber criminals, are mainly economic costs, loss of sensitive or proprietary data, annoyance, and nuisance. Cyber-attacks do not rise to the threat level of warfare, and cyber-attacks are not existential threats to societies: modern warfare is.











Ian Thornton-Trump CD is an ITIL certified IT professional with 25 years of experience in IT security and information technology. From 1989 to 1992, Ian served with the Canadian Forces (CF), Military Intelligence Branch; in 2002, he joined the CF Military Police Reserves and retired as a Public Affairs Officer in 2013. After a year with the RCMP as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, Ian worked as a cyber security analyst/consultant for multi-national insurance, banking and regional health care verticals. Today, as Chief Information Security Officer for Cyjax Ltd. (UK) & Chief Technical Officer of Octopi Managed Services Inc. (Canada), Ian has deep experience with the threats facing small, medium and enterprise businesses. His research and experience have made him a sought-after cyber security consultant specialising in cyber threat intelligence programs for small, medium and enterprise organisations. In his spare time, he teaches courses for CompTIA, is an adjunct faculty member of the London Graduate School and owns a recording and live streaming studio in London, UK.


Disclaimer: Analyst View features content from external contributors. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Cyjax or A2 Global Risk.