CYBERWARSCyberspace: The New Battleground in Modern-Day Warfare

Published 3 March 2022

Twenty-first century battles are now being fought digitally, as well as with missiles on land, sea and air. Bolstering cybersecurity is thus becoming ever more important as nation states wage war in new and complex arenas.

Bolstering cybersecurity is becoming ever more important as nation states wage war in new and complex arenas.

That is the view of two UNSW academics in the wake of a wave of online attacks linked to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.

As well as the use of tanks and bombs and soldiers on the battlefield, countries are now also waging war in cyberspace in order to weaken their enemies, most notably by targeting crucial infrastructure such as power and communications systems.

For example, in recent days and weeks Ukraine has accused Russian hackers of launching massive denial of service attacks on their government agencies, banks and the defense sector.

The United States government also claims Russia breached the networks of multiple defense contractors and gained sensitive information about weapons-development communications infrastructure.

And back in 2015, a series of power outages across Ukraine were allegedly caused by military hackers in the Russian GRU (Intelligence Agency) Main Center for Special Technologies.

CIA Triad
“Cyber warfare has become a tool by nation states to attack other countries,” says Professor Sanjay Jha, deputy director of the UNSW Institute for Cybersecurity (IFCYBER).

“In the modern digital world, by attacking a computer server in the network of some critical piece of infrastructure, you can potentially take down an entire power system and with that, you could paralyze large parts of the economy.

“Other targets might be the banking system or a server that deals with communications systems so these system become unavailable to legitimate users.

“In cybersecurity any system needs to maintain  confidentiality, integrity and availability, aka the ‘CIA Triad’.

“Availability is actually very important, and attackers can affect that by launching what is known as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack where they just bog down a system with junk data that it has to process.

“Nowadays attackers can draft  20, 30, 50 or 100s of servers all over the world sending packets of information and maybe wasting 99 per cent of the server’s time dealing with it.

“Just like in conventional conflict, each party wants to maximize the amount of damage and discomfort to the target.”

Professor Salil Kanhere, another cybersecurity expert from UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, says finding and then fixing vulnerabilities in computer programs or software is one of the most crucial ways to defend against attacks by state-sponsored hackers and others.