The Cybersecurity Canon: Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar

Feb 11, 2016
4 minutes


We modeled the Cybersecurity Canon after the Baseball or Rock & Roll Hall-of-Fame, except for cybersecurity books. We have more than 25 books on the initial candidate list, but we are soliciting help from the cybersecurity community to increase the number to be much more than that. Please write a review and nominate your favorite

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Book Review by Canon Committee Member, Brian Kelly: Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar (2009) by Martin C. Libicki

Executive Summary

My interest in the Cybersecurity Canon project and appreciation for a common body of knowledge shared amongst professionals can be traced back to my time as an Officer in the Air National Guard.

Each year the Air Force Chief of Staff would issue a “reading list”; in 2010 Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar by Martin C. Libicki was on the list under Mission, Doctrine and Profession. Back in 2008 Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, Jr., then Commander of Eight Air Force (8AF/CC), sponsored the study “Defining and Implementing Cyber Command and Cyber Warfare.” This book represents the results of that study. The reading list and, more specifically, this book were meant to inform senior Air Force leaders and decision-makers. The basic message of Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar is: Cyberspace is its own medium with its own rules; thus, deterrence and warfighting tenets established in other media do not necessarily translate reliably into cyberspace.


On June 23, 2009, the Secretary of Defense directed the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command to establish a sub-unified command. The United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), as we know it today, is located at Fort Meade, Maryland. The establishment of U.S. Cyber Command marked the ascent of cyberspace as a military domain. This book focuses on policy dimensions of cyberspace and cyberwar: what it means, what it entails, and what threats can defend or deter it.

Libicki’s background is non-cyber national security history and policy, and that knowledge and background will benefit readers unfamiliar with Cold War era concepts as they relate to cyber.

Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar is divided into nine chapters. Chapter One covers the introduction and purpose of the book, which clearly is to focus on military policy as it relates to cyberwar. Chapter Two introduces readers to a conceptual framework for cyberdeterrence and cyberwar. It explains external and internal threats and defines cyberattack and cyberdeterrence. Cyberattack is the deliberate disruption or corruption by one state of a system of interest to another, and cyberdeterrence is the capability in cyberspace to do unto others as they would do unto us. Chapter Three asks, “why is cyberdeterrence different?” and focuses on analogies to game theory and nuclear deterrence. Foundationally knowing “who did it” is critical; today we think of it terms of attribution. All decisions, policy or operational, are based on attribution. Chapter Four considers cyberattack and the purpose of the attack. Potential purposes range from “oops” to rogue operators and the implications of each. Chapter Five offers a primer for a strategy of response. This chapter has relevance today as the idea of “hacking back” or “active defense” has become a popular concept in the strategy of response. Chapters Six and Seven outline “strategic” and “operational” cyberwar and offer conclusions on both. Chapter Eight is dedicated to cyberdefense and concludes that deterrence in cyber terms may be too problematic to offer much surcease from cyberattacks. It outlines the goal of cyberdefense to include architecture, strategy and policy. Chapter Nine is simply titled “Tricky Terrain” and offers the defend, disarm or deter triangle as an illustration of approaching a threat that cannot be denied. We know now that cyberattacks are a threat that cannot be denied.


Much has changed since this monograph was published back in 2009; and, while some cybersecurity experts may not agree with Libicki’s conclusions, we can’t argue the significance this work has as a historical text in the cybersecurity professional’s education. I would recommend Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar for the Cybersecurity Canon. Reading this book in 2016 allows the reader to both compare and contrast Libicki’s conclusions against the backdrop of cyber events that have occurred over the last decade.

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