May 31, 2011, 10:17 AM — The U.S. military's top brass have decided, after long deliberation and tens of thousands of attacks from opponents overseas, many embarrassingly successful, that computer sabotage from another country can sometimes be considered an act of war.
To the brass whose asset lists include boomers, door-kickers and trigger-pullers, the declaration means it may now be permissible to use traditional military force to respond to an attack online.
The real impact of the report – 30 pages in classified form and 12 in unclassified but unreleased form, according to the WSJ – is the conclusion that the U.S. Laws of Armed Conflict can be applied to cyberspace.
Not that applying that level of analysis or decision-making structure will make things clearer. The Laws of Armed Conflict are a conglomeration of best practices and rules of engagement pulled from various treaties, international law and sober considerations of whether a particular opponent has nuclear weapons or other off-putting military force, or whether it's a smaller nation the U.S. can invade safely after the .mil shuts down its radar, shoots down its plane and sinks its boat.
Among the Big Thoughts circulating slowly around under be-medalled uniform hats is the idea of "equivalence" in response. You hack my system, I hack yours; you disrupt my infrastructure, I turn you into a cloud of pink mist.
"If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," one anonymous military official told the Wall Street Journal.
While undoubtedly effective against hackers who leave clear trails back to their workstations – clustered in mom-basements clustered around smokestacks, the policy sounds more like the less-effective versions of Insurgent Whack-a-Mole than it does an effective response to online threats to U.S. security.
What the report doesn't address is the .mil's almost continuous and largely ineffective effort to slow or stop the stream of online attacks from China, Russia and countries with more virtual-boom military capability than the real kind.