Cyber-warfare conjures up images of information warriors unleashing vicious attacks against an unsuspecting opponent’s computer networks, wreaking havoc and paralyzing nations. This a frightening scenario, but how likely is it to occur? What would the effects of a cyber-attack be on a potential opponent?

Much of the literature on cyber-terrorism assumes that the vulnerability of computer networks and the vulnerability of critical infrastructures are the same and that these vulnerabilities put national security at a significant risk. Given the newness of computer network technology and the rapidity with which it spread into economic activity, these assumptions are not surprising. A closer look at the relationships between computer networks and critical infrastructures, their vulnerability to attack, and the effect on national security, suggests that the assumption of vulnerability is wrong.

A reassessment of the cyber threat has four elements. First, we need to put cyber-warfare and cyber-terrorism in the historical context of attacks against infrastructure. Strategies that emphasize attacks on critical civil infrastructures have discussed for more than eighty years. Second, we need to examine cyber-attacks against a backdrop of routine infrastructure failures. There is extensive data on power outages, flight delays and communications disruptions that occur normally and the consequences of these routine failures can be used to gauge the effect cyber-warfare and cyber-terrorism. Third, we need to measure the dependence of infrastructure on computer networks and the redundancy already present in these systems. Finally, for the case of cyber-terrorism, we must consider the use of cyber-weapons in the context of the political goals and motivations of terrorists, and whether cyber-weapons are likely to achieve these goals.

A preliminary review of these factors suggests that computer network vulnerabilities are an increasingly serious business problem but that their threat to national security is overstated. Modern industrial societies are more robust than they appear at first glance. Critical infrastructures, especially in large market economies, are more distributed, diverse, redundant and self-healing than a cursory assessment may suggest, rendering them less vulnerable to attack. In all cases, cyber attacks are less effective and less disruptive than physical attacks. Their only advantage is that they are cheaper and easier to carry out than a physical attack


The Internet is a new thing, and new things can appear more frightening than they really are. Much of the early analysis of cyber-threats and cyber security appears to have “The Sky is Falling” as its theme. The sky is not falling, and cyber weapons seem to be of limited value in attacking national power or intimidating citizens

The infrastructures in large industrial countries are resistant to cyber-attack.18  CSIS, 2002 10 Terrorists or foreign militaries may well launch cyber-attacks, but they are likely to be disappointed in the effect. Nations are more robust than the early analysts of cyber terrorism and cyber-warfare give them credit for, and cyber-attacks are less damaging than physical attacks. Digital Pearl Harbors are unlikely.

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