Is the future of warfare going to be fought by soldiers using bullets, bombs and missiles -- or by computer geeks hunched over a laptop?
Both, say experts in cyber conflict, in response to a recent article, titled "U.S. Admits to Cyber Attacks: The Future of Conflict," by security specialist Pierluigi Paganini, writing at Infosec Island.
Those experts take issue with Paganini's example of an official admission by the U.S. that it is involved in cyber attacks, noting that those conducted on a battlefield are different than covert operations outside of a war zone. They agree that cyber capabilities are going to be crucial in future conflicts, but will not displace conventional weapons.
Paganini cited a comment from Marine Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, speaking in Baltimore about the war in Afghanistan: "I can tell you that as a commander in Afghanistan in the year 2010, I was able to use my cyber operations against my adversary with great impact ... I was able to get inside his nets, infect his command-and-control, and in fact defend myself against his almost constant incursions to get inside my wire, to affect my operations," Mills said.
"It's the first time that a high official admitted these types of offensive operations take place in Afghanistan, despite that it is reasonable to imagine the involvement of cyber units," Paganini wrote.
Marc Zwillinger, an attorney with ZwillGen and a specialist in government and private roles in cyberwar, agrees that Mills's statement is an official acknowledgment of the use of cyber weapons in war.
[See also: Government engineers actively plan for cyberwar]
"But I think there is a difference between acknowledging that cyber is a weapon in the arsenal in wartime and acknowledging covert actions like Stuxnet," he said. "In some ways, it's the difference between acknowledging that we use high-caliber munitions in battle, and acknowledging we have a covert assassination program."
Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security, said there is not only a qualitative difference, but a legal one as well.
"It's the difference between Title 10 actions by the military and Title 50 actions by the CIA. In practice, they may use the same tools, but the tools about who, what, when, where and how are completely different," he said, adding that the U.S. has been using cyber weapons on battlefields, "at least since Kosovo."
Of course, as is the case with any relatively new weapons system, there are questions about rules and about effectiveness. "Today there isn't a legal and official definition for cyber weapons under the law perspective, and every government is working hard to develop its own arsenal eluding any kind of penalties for cyber operations," Paganini wrote.
Rosenzweig said there are existing rules, "and they fit pretty well. Writing new rules opens up a can of worms. Who defines them? How are they verified, etc."
But the issue is definitely on the table, according to Marc Zwillinger. "There has been a lot of time spent by the military and thought leaders on how cyber attacks fit with the rules of engagement."
Beyond that are concerns about cyber weapons getting into the wild, out of a nation's control, and perhaps being used against it. "What would happen if we lost control of these systems? Could "the machine" that defends us become our enemy?"
Rosenzweig agrees that the risk is real. "It is nice to have offensive capability as a deterrent to attack, but as the most wired country in the world, we are also the most vulnerable to attack whether deliberate or inadvertent blowback," he said.
Zwillinger said the danger is similar to that of conventional weapons. "Even precise weaponry like predator drones can cause collateral damage," he said. "Just like other weapons, cyberweapons have to be designed and deployed to minimize that damage."
Both say cyberweapons will be a major element in the future of warfare, but will not supplant conventional weapons.
"Putting a virus into the enemy systems can be like putting sugar in the gas tank of the trucks in a convoy, or decrypting coded communications," Zwillinger said. "This is just a more modern version of the same thing.
"But traditional munitions and communications are never going away. Many of us keep copper wired phones in our homes, because in the event of a power outage, Verizon FIOS stops working, and our cell batteries will ultimately die, but low-voltage phone lines will still work," he said. "If we know, and the enemy knows that all computer-controlled weaponry and communications can be vulnerable to cyber attack, we'd all be foolish to only have those kinds of weapons."