What is Cyber Warfare and How Does It Work?

What is Cyber warfare

What is Cyber Warfare and How Does It Work?

Key Points

  • Cyber warfare refers to any series of cyber attacks against a nation that could lead to the disruption of the victim’s computer systems, with the principal aim of crippling or destroying the rival’s computer infrastructure.
  • Stuxnet, developed by the Israeli and American governments in 2010, is considered the first digital weapon in the world, used to damage Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges.
  • Cyber warfare can take many forms, including espionage, sabotage, use of propaganda, system disruption through DoS and DDoS attacks, disruption of financial services, and disruption or destruction of power and communication systems.
  • Cyber warfare has similar goals to traditional warfare, but can be used effectively by less-armed nations or terrorist organizations, leveling the playing field.
  • There is a thin line between cyber warfare and cybercrime, with no clear distinction between the two as of yet.

Thanks to the internet and the development of sophisticated computer programs, the modern battlefield has changed. While conventional wars were fought using guns and missiles, any war today will ultimately make use of traditional weapons and a substantial dose of cyber weapons. As we have witnessed from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, a cyber attack usually precedes a physical bombardment or aerial attack. This points to a future in which wars between nations will use a combination of sophisticated cyber tactics in addition to traditional modes of fighting. There are plenty of programs and software to enable modern combatants to gather vast amounts of information about their enemies’ abilities. Thus, the terrain on which the physical war will be fought, and even the sentiments of the citizens they will encounter, indicate future wars are likely to be more destructive than wars in the past.

What Is Cyber Warfare: Complete Explanation

Cyber warfare refers to any series of cyber attacks against a nation that could lead to the disruption of the victim’s computer systems. Since all modern government institutions rely on computers to store critical data, an attack that aims to compromise the safety of such data qualifies as an act of cyber warfare.

Cyber warfare can take many forms as we discuss further below. The principal aim of cyber warfare is to cripple or destroy the rival’s computer infrastructure. If not destroy it, then at least disrupt such a system through the introduction of viruses and other attacks. From the attacker’s point of view, cyber warfare will be deemed effective when the victim’s computer infrastructure is either completely destroyed or substantially destabilized.

Cyber Warfare: An Exact Definition

Cyber warfare is a series of actions by a nation or international organization aimed at damaging another nation’s computer or information networks.

The History of Cyber Warfare

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 marked the end of the cold war between the USA and the USSR. However, even before this momentous event, the USA and Russia were in an arms race that would take on new dimensions in cyberspace. The widespread use of the internet in the 1990s made it possible for nations to use the internet to launch attacks on enemies or to protect their assets and territories. There are a number of international incidents that perfectly fit the bill of cyber warfare. The most prominent ones are:

Stuxnet 2010

Stuxnet is considered the first digital weapon in the world. Developed collaboratively by the Israeli and American governments, Stuxnet is a computer worm that was used to wreak havoc on Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges. This dealt a major blow to the country’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.

Germany 2014 – Steel Mill Hacked

In 2014, the German government reported that one of the country’s steel mill’s control programs had been hacked.

Ukraine 2014

In a coordinated cyber and military attack, Russia disrupted internet services in Ukraine while rebels allied to Russia were busy taking over Crimea. In the same year, a hacking group based in Russia corrupted Ukraine’s election system in an attempt to aid a pro-Russian candidate and cause chaos in the country. Later, in December 2016, Russia succeeded in causing a power outage that affected over 200,000 people in western Ukraine.

USA 2020

In December 2020, the security system of SolarWinds, a US-based IT Management Company, was breached by a cybercrime group believed to have Russian connections. The attackers injected malware into the IT Company’s updates and these updates were then distributed to customers. As a result of the attack, several critical US operations were breached. These operations included the military, nuclear weapons agencies, and many Fortune 500 companies.

Cyber warfare is real and keeps evolving. Creators of malware have succeeded in penetrating the systems of government institutions, as well as respected email servers such as Microsoft Exchange. Other prominent global players that have fallen victim include Amazon (2020), Twitter (2020), and Yahoo (2016).

system hacked malware cybersecurity data security ransomware
Hacking groups may attempt to corrupt the election systems of rival nations in favor of certain candidates.


How Does Cyber Warfare Work?

Cyber warfare can either be offensive or defensive. For offensive operations, a person or group of experts in cyberspace are deployed to target perceived enemies. In the military today, you’ll find trained offensive cyber warfare officers. Defensive officers, on the other hand, are trained to preempt the actions of the adversary by developing systems that could thwart or deter enemy attacks. Cyber warfare takes many forms. Some of the ways in which you’ll see cyber warfare at work include:


Espionage is the act of spying on another country with the intention of stealing secrets. The information sought by the spies is usually sensitive or classified. Obtaining it would give the spying nation a competitive advantage over its rival in the event of war. Today, governments and organizations have invested in spyware (spying software) that is capable of gathering information without the consent of the people being spied on.


The intelligence data available to government agencies is vast and sensitive. Should such information get into the hands of enemy countries or terrorist organizations, it could be used to plan and carry out attacks. Once a government or organization classifies data and determines what could be considered sensitive information, measures must be put in place to protect it. The data must be protected from both external enemies, such as spying governments, and possible internal enemies, such as compromised or disgruntled employees.

Use of Propaganda

When two nations are at war, the fighting goes on not just on the battlefield, but also in the minds of the people of the nations involved. Propaganda wars have been waged long before the use of the internet. They are usually aimed at making the citizens believe in the importance of the war effort, why their country is bound to win, and how the enemy is probably demoralized and unable to win. In the internet age messages on social media could deliver similar messages, as has been happening in the Russia-Ukraine war.

System Disruption Through DoS and DDoS Attacks

To disable the activities of the enemy, a nation at war could employ Denial-of-Service (DoS) or Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks. When a DoS attack is used, the victim’s server is flooded with traffic making a crucial resource or service unavailable. Once the server is overloaded, it could actually crash.

A DDoS attack is more lethal as the attacks come from several computers. This kind of multi-machine attack could prove more effective in paralyzing an enemy’s system. Coming from many machines, a DDoS attack is harder to guard against and it’s even tougher to identify the source of the attacks.

Disruption of Financial Services

From insurance to banking operations and even the stock markets, modern economic systems cannot function without the use of computers. During a war, a country can gain substantial mileage over a rival by disrupting financial services.

Hackers can infiltrate the systems to get money to fund their operations, They could also make critically needed money unavailable to their enemies. Moreover, hackers could have the ability to deliver falsified reports about the operations of a country’s currency or well-known stocks. The intent is to further increase panic and disorientate the enemy’s forces.

Disruption/Destruction of Power and Communication Systems

Like financial services, most modern communication and power distribution systems are run using computers. An attack on the systems used to distribute power from electric installations could cause massive fatalities, especially in critical seasons such as winter. When communication is disrupted or destroyed, simple day-to-day activities such as sending text messages, emails, or communicating on the phone might prove impossible.

A country can gain an advantage by disrupting its enemies’ financial and communication systems.

©Alexander Geiger/Shutterstock.com

What Are the Applications of Cyber Warfare?

Cyber warfare has similar goals to traditional warfare — to inflict as much damage on the enemy in as little time as possible. In a world dominated by a few highly militarized countries, cyber warfare brings another dimension to the nature of global fighting now and in the future.

While traditional warfare relies on the deployment of expensive hardware and highly trained personnel, cyber warfare can be used quite effectively by less-armed nations or terrorist organizations. Where you might need to use state-of-the-art military hardware to confront an enemy in a traditional war setting, cyber warfare could level the playing field. If a country is using an army of spies for espionage, a rival could use a smaller number of personnel if they are trained in cyber espionage. Regardless of the size of a nation’s military hardware, all combatants in war use cyber warfare to:

Gather Intelligence

Today, traditional warfare and cyber warfare techniques go hand in hand. Before the troops on the ground can decide the places to attack, they rely on cyber spies to point out the exact locations, thereby ensuring maximum results using minimum resources. As we’ve seen in the Russia-Ukraine war, Ukrainian power grids, critical installations, and bridges have repeatedly been targeted using intelligence gathered by the Russian military.

Destroy Safety Infrastructure

Some countries have invested heavily in safety infrastructure to keep their citizens safe in the event of war. Such systems could include early warning signs, bunkers, and traffic signals. Cyber warfare can make this entire infrastructure redundant. A cyber attack could jam a country’s early warning system and the traffic signaling system, thereby making them unable to deliver critical messages when they are needed most.

Prevent Phishing Attacks

Phishing is a tool used in cyber warfare to deliver malware and obtain sensitive data that could be used to plan attacks. Both organizations and governments are forever at risk of getting exposed to cyber criminals unless they have measures in place to identify and block malicious software.

Deal With Hacktivists

Hacktivists might create the impression that they are modern-day Robin Hoods. By breaking into a computer system, the “hacking activists” might obtain crucial data that they could use to spread social or political messages. Most of the information that hacktivists have is out of the public domain and they could use it to sway public opinion especially when a country is at war.

Hacktivists might, for instance, bad mouth the authorities and convince fellow citizens that their government could be participating in an unnecessary and unwinnable war. Such sentiments could demoralize the soldiers on the battlefront, embarrass the government, and might be the exact ammunition that a rival nation needs.

Cyber Warfare vs. Cybercrime: What’s the Difference

Given that cyber warfare is a relatively new term in the military world, there is a bit of confusion about its difference with cybercrime. There’s a very thin line between cyber warfare and cybercrime. When we hear of cyber criminals, we envisage people who try to infiltrate organizations and their networks to steal money, damage computer systems, spread viruses, obtain sensitive data, or steal identities. The targets of cyber crimes are individuals or organizations and the people committing such crimes could be individuals or groups with advanced computer skills. They could be located anywhere in the globe.

While a cybercrime could target an individual or organization, at what point could such an action be considered cyber warfare? While cyber warfare refers to a conflict between nations, how can we tell the agents involved? As far as definitions go, there’s as yet no clear distinction between cyber warfare and cybercrime.

Final Thoughts

The 21st century has witnessed a massive change in the tactics employed in war. With the introduction of drones and a complete array of cyber weapons, the physical presence of the soldier on the battleground is diminishing every day. Where massive military operations were the reserve of nations with awesome financial muscle and incredible military hardware in the past, today, small nations and terrorist groups are capable of inflicting maximum damage through cyber warfare. Moreover, given the never-ending changes in technology, we can only expect more sophisticated cyber weapons to appear in the future.

Stopping cyberwarriors is not an easy task. When you remember that most of the creators of the most lethal cyber weapons are bankrolled by wealthy governments and terrorist organizations with deep pockets, it will take the concerted efforts of all peace-loving global citizens to keep the criminals in check.

What is Cyber Warfare and How Does It Work? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Who engages in cyber warfare?

Various actors can engage in cyber warfare, including nation-states, state-sponsored groups, hacktivist collectives, criminal organizations, and even individual hackers. The motivations behind cyber warfare can vary, such as political, economic, military, or ideological interests.

What are the goals of cyber warfare?

The goals of cyber warfare can be diverse, including:

  • Disruption: Inflicting damage or disruption to critical infrastructure, communication networks, or financial systems of an adversary.
  • Espionage: Gathering intelligence or sensitive information from targeted entities, including government agencies, corporations, or individuals.
  • Covert Operations: Conducting covert activities, such as surveillance, manipulation, or sabotage, without direct attribution to the attacker.
  • Propaganda: Spreading misinformation or propaganda through social media platforms or compromising online media outlets.
  • Economic Advantage: Stealing intellectual property, trade secrets, or financial information to gain a competitive edge or economic advantage.

What are the consequences of cyber warfare?

Cyber warfare can have significant consequences, including:

  • Damage to Critical Infrastructure: Attacks targeting critical infrastructure, such as power grids, transportation systems, or healthcare facilities, can lead to service disruptions, economic losses, or even endanger lives.
  • Financial Losses: Organizations may suffer financial losses due to data breaches, theft of intellectual property, or disruption of business operations.
  • Breach of Privacy: Cyber warfare can compromise the privacy and security of individuals by accessing personal information, monitoring online activities, or conducting surveillance.
  • Geopolitical Tensions: State-sponsored cyber warfare can escalate geopolitical tensions between nations and potentially trigger retaliatory actions or cyber conflicts.
  • Erosion of Trust: The constant threat of cyber warfare can erode public trust in digital systems, online services, and the overall security of the digital ecosystem.

Why is Israel so good at cybersecurity?

Israel has earned a reputation as a global leader in cybersecurity due to several key factors. One of the primary reasons is the strong government support and investment in cybersecurity initiatives. The Israeli government has recognized the importance of cybersecurity in today’s digital landscape and has established dedicated agencies and frameworks to address cyber threats. This support has facilitated the growth of cybersecurity research and development, as well as fostered collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Another contributing factor is Israel’s military background. The country’s military places a strong emphasis on cybersecurity, recognizing its significance in protecting national security. The military’s rigorous training programs and experience in dealing with cyber threats have cultivated a talent pool of skilled cybersecurity professionals. These individuals bring their expertise and knowledge to the private sector, contributing to Israel’s prowess in the field.

Which country is best prepared against cyber attack?

Some countries often recognized for their strong cybersecurity posture include:

  1. United States: The United States has made significant investments in cybersecurity and has established various cybersecurity initiatives, agencies, and frameworks to protect critical infrastructure and combat cyber threats.
  2. Israel: Israel is known for its advanced cybersecurity capabilities, with a strong emphasis on research and development in the field. It has a robust cybersecurity ecosystem and often collaborates with private companies and startups to strengthen cybersecurity measures.
  3. Singapore: Singapore has prioritized cybersecurity as a national agenda and implemented comprehensive cybersecurity strategies. It has invested in cyber defense capabilities, cybersecurity education, and initiatives to foster collaboration between the government, industry, and academia.
  4. United Kingdom: The United Kingdom has developed a robust cybersecurity framework and established agencies responsible for cybersecurity initiatives, threat intelligence, and incident response. It actively promotes collaboration between the government, businesses, and academia to enhance cybersecurity resilience.
  5. Estonia: Estonia is often cited as a leader in cybersecurity due to its proactive approach to developing digital infrastructure and implementing secure e-governance systems. It has established various cybersecurity initiatives and policies to protect its digital assets.
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