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What Cyberwar Might Really Look Like

Imagine it's August 2020. A powerful and rising China wants to bring the city-state of Singapore into its fold like it has with Hong Kong. Before the first physical attacks, China launches a cyberoffensive to disrupt the communications capabilities of the U.S., Japan and their allies.

Members of the Chinese military's 60,000-strong cyberwarfare group deeply penetrate U.S. military, government and corporate networks. Crushing denial-of-service attacks hamper the Pentagon's efforts to mobilize conventional forces. Deliberately injected misinformation is sent to field commanders and to ships at sea.

That's a hypothetical scenario of how a full-scale cyberwar launched against the U.S by China might play out, and it's very different from conventional wisdom .

The scenario is described in a report by Christopher Bronk, a former U.S. diplomat and an IT policy specialist at Rice University's Baker Institute. The report was published in the latest issue of the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Studies Quarterly .

In an interview, Bronk downplayed popular visions of an " electronic Pearl Harbor ," in which critical infrastructure, such as the electrical grid , is knocked out.

Such attacks can't be ruled out entirely, but it's unlikely that a nation-state would launch one, because of the catastrophic response it would trigger, he said.

Instead, Bronk said, cyberwar will be an effort "to get inside the other guy's decision process rather than shutting it off entirely."

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.


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