The International Institute for Strategic Studies says cyber attacks could become weapon of choice in future conflicts.

Cyber warfare attacks on military infrastructure, government and private communications systems, and financial markets pose a rapidly growing but little understood threat to international security and could become a decisive weapon in future conflicts between states, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London warned on Wednesday.

The institute’s director-general, John Chipman, said: “Despite evidence of cyber attacks in recent political conflicts, there is little appreciation internationally of how to assess cyber conflict. We are now, in relation to the problem of cyber warfare, at the same stage of intellectual development as we were in the 1950s in relation to possible nuclear war.”

The warning accompanied publication of the Military Balance 2010, the institute’s annual assessment of global military capabilities and defence economics. The study also highlighted a series of other security threats, including the war in Afghanistan, China’s military diversification, the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme, and the impact of terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere.

Future state-on-state conflict, as well as conflicts involving non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda, would increasingly be characterised by reliance on asymmetric warfare techniques, chiefly cyber warfare, Chipman said.

Hostile governments could hide behind rapidly advancing technology to launch attacks undetected. Unlike conventional and nuclear arms, there were no agreed international controls on the use of cyber weapons.

“Cyber warfare [may be used] to disable a country’s infrastructure, meddle with the integrity of another country’s internal military data, try to confuse its financial transactions or to accomplish any number of other possibly crippling aims,” he said.

Yet governments and national defence establishments at present had only limited ability to tell when they were under attack, by whom, and how they might respond.

Cyber warfare typically involves the use of illegal exploitation methods on the internet, corruption or disruption of computer networks and software, hacking, computer forensics and espionage. Reports of cyber warfare attacks, government-sponsored or otherwise, are rising. Last month Google launched an investigation into cyber attacks allegedly originating in China that it said had targeted the email accounts of human rights activists.

In December, the South Korean government reported an attack in which it said North Korean hackers may have stolen secret defence plans outlining the South Korean and U.S. strategy in the event of war on the Korean peninsula.

Last July, espionage protection agents in Germany said the country faced “extremely sophisticated” Chinese and Russian internet spying operations targeting industrial secrets and critical infrastructure such as Germany’s power grid.

One of the most notorious cyber warfare offensives to date took place in Estonia in 2007 when more than a million computers were used to jam government, business and media websites. The attacks, widely believed to have originated in Russia, coincided with a period of heightened bilateral political tension. They inflicted damage estimated in tens of millions of euros.

China last week accused the Obama administration of waging “online warfare” against Iran by recruiting a “hacker brigade” and manipulating social media such as Twitter and YouTube to stir up anti-government agitation.

The U.S. Department of Defence’s quadrennial defence review, published this week, also highlighted the threat posed by cyber warfare on space-based surveillance and communications systems.

Some other key points of IISS report

— The insurgency in Afghanistan is complex and Pakistan’s full cooperation remains elusive.

— Al-Qaeda retains the capability to launch regular attacks in Baghdad.

— Technical difficulties frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions but all the same Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium continues to grow.

— The IISS looks forward to increased defence cooperation between France and Britain, saying both countries needed to spend smarter because they cannot afford to spend more.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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