Given the level of cyber-attack, defense and reaction in the ongoing conflict with Iran – which responded to the Stuxnet attacks by expanding the cyberattack corps of its semi-official militia and promising retribution hacks of the U.S. – it is clear Iran is a test bed for more than smart, stealthy drones.
Direct attacks on computers in its military facilities, malware attacks on nuclear facilities, a second round of Stuxnet dressed up as Duqu and stealthy flyovers by remote-controlled drones have apparently taken the place of proxy wars, border conflicts, the funding of rival terrorist groups and other Cold-War-era dirty tricks.
That doesn't mean they're any less dirty, or lead to results any less lethal.
In February the Israeli deputy prime minister in charge of intelligence and cyberwarfare told attendees at a U.S. conference that cyberwar is less unpleasant than the real thing.
Cyberwar involved less killing, less disastrous damage to important facilities and neighboring areas that could be damaged by bombs, a far smaller number of 'warriors' in the fight and far less exposure that could confirm who is responsible for a particular attack and invite reprisals from the enemy, he said.
As the explosions at Iranian facilities during the past two weeks show, cyberwar is inextricably entwined with real war, hacking with killing, intrusions with infiltrations.
Drones reduce the risk for American pilots, malware reduces the need to make overt, direct hack attempts and, yes, fewer people die as a direct result of digital warfare.
Open cyberwar invites more than digital chaos, according to Richard Falkenrath, former deputy commissioner for counterterrorism for the New York Police Department and deputy homeland security adviser.
Open cyberwar will divide the global IT industry into antagonistic camps, encourage both software and hardware makers to build backdoors, bugs and other flaws into products being sold to the enemy, reducing everyone's ability to trust the technology on which they rely.
It also encourages law enforcement agencies to push farther into police-state territory by demanding more access to digital records than the Constitution allows to the old-fashioned kind, Falkenrath wrote.
The result could be a more civil variety of war – one in which systems are killed rather than siblings.