How America's Cyber Strategy Could Create an International Crisis

María Ellers

The United States has adopted a new cyber warfare strategy focused on “persistent engagement” and “forward defense” in an attempt to thwart Chinese, Russian and other state-sponsored cyber attacks. While this unprecedented “defend forward” approach gives America many significant advantages in navigating cyber warfare, it also entails high-risks that could unintentionally escalate conflict. As a result, America must consider whether its traditional understanding of concepts like offense, defense and deterrence are applicable to the strategy of cyber warfare and whether they should continue to inform Washington’s cyber strategies.

This was the theme of a panel discussion held by the Center for the National Interest on September 10, 2019. The discussion featured prominent experts on cyber warfare: Jason Healey, a senior research Scholar at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs and the editor of the first history of conflict in cyberspace, A Fierce Domain: Cyber Conflict, 1986 to 2012; and Ben Buchanan, assistant professor at Georgetown University and author of the book The Cyber Security Dilemma, which examines the intersection between cybersecurity and statecraft. The discussion focused on unpacking Washington’s new cyber strategy while raising questions on its effectiveness and subsequent implications on national security.

Healey explained that the new strategy of persistent engagement and forward defense is not just designed to deter cyber adversaries, but to force adversaries to “play defense” and “raise the costs of offensive operations.” Persistent engagement refers to the Defense Department’s initiative to counter foreign cyber threats as they emerge. Forward defense, similarly, aims to gain the upper hand against an adversary by using direct actions to track, intercept and disrupt attacks in foreign cyberspace before they occur. 

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