On cyber – The utility of military cyber operations during armed conflict

“Ours is the age of the network.”
(Antoine Bousquet)

On 5 July 2019, LACMO researcher Jelle van Haaster obtained a PhD at the Amsterdam Center for International Law for his research on the utility of military cyber operations during armed conflict.

Notwithstanding benign use, the Internet is also used for harmful activities such as crime, espionage, sabotage and more generally: forwarding one’s interest to the detriment of another’s. Cyber means and methods have become one of the many ways of forwarding or protecting one’s interests. This notion has made its way into the armed forces from the late 1990s to the 2000s. Many armed forces have organised themselves for utilising cyber means and methods in military cyber operations and some have used these operations in conflict. Although armed forces are conducting military cyber operations, there is a lack of understanding regarding the utility of military cyber operations.

In an interview with the University of Amsterdam he spoke about his motivation for this research topic:

“In 2013, Cyber was still something of a hype. Around that time, the Dutch Ministry of Defence decided that it, too, wanted to get on board and decided to integrate cyber capabilities into military operations (carried out by the Ministry of Defence). The focus on cyber was a bit monodisciplinary, rather technical, at the time, whereas the integration of new capabilities now conspicuously involves much more than technology alone. It also typically spans more than one single discipline or just one ministry. The prospect of situating this somewhat technical phenomenon in a multidisciplinary or preferably an interdisciplinary framework interests me – and that is what I did in my dissertation.”

Haaster summarises his conclusions:

“At various levels of warfare, there is a palpable lack of understanding of the utility of military cyber operations in conflict situations. This typically results in a reluctance to engage in such operations during armed conflict. To grasp the utility of military cyber operations, it is necessary to consider the context. I have mapped out that context from five perspectives: political, sociological, technological, military and legal.

My dissertation concludes by providing a synthesis of the utility of military cyber operations. Whether such operations have utility depends on their intended purpose, the context in which they are used, the cyber capabilities that are deployed in the operation, the armed forces’ expertise in the use of those capabilities, and the legal framework that governs the specific context of the cyber operation. In other words, the utility of military cyber operations is at the interface of the five perspectives described in my PhD dissertation.”

Download Jelle Haaster’s thesis from the University of Amsterdam’s online library.