Why the US Explored “Cyber War” Against Libya, And Why It Backed Down

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Libya fighting AA gun

From Jason Healey, the New Atlanticist:  [W]e should have been not just surprised but shocked if we’d heard that the US ruled out cyber capabilities without even considering them.  Cyber capabilities are not nuclear weapons, usable only as a last resort. Most – especially those targeted at battlefield systems not connected to the Internet – are far more precise.

What is likely to get missed in the general discussion of this news item is that the word ‘NATO’ hardly appears in the New York Times story. The cyber capabilities discussed are US-only and would have likely have been conducted as a separate operation to support NATO but outside of its formal chain of command. This is an important point to remember if you hear someone calling for a “NATO offensive capability.” This already exists, but it lies within the national militaries, not in any collective NATO agency or unit. . . .

The United States is not rushing headlong to militarize cyberspace. It appears to be taking a measured approach, sometimes using cyber capabilities for limited gains, but also being very cautious. At some point, the US will use national capabilities directly as part of a military campaign. When this happens, it probably won’t be “a shot heard ‘round the world,” but a natural extension of using available military capabilities to be as (or more) effective with less bloodshed. Cyber warfare is a policy tool that may save domestic and foreign lives, and thus an option that any commander (regardless of service or nation) must consider in future wars. 

Jason Healey is the director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council. You can follow his comments on cyber cooperation, conflict and competition on Twitter, @Jason_Healey. Photo credit: Getty Images.