In Today’s Security Environment, Deterrence Is Becoming Personal

In Today’s Security Environment, Deterrence Is Becoming Personal
An employee of Global Cyber Security Company Group-IB develops a computer code in an office in Moscow, Russia, Oct. 25, 2017 (AP photo by Pavel Golovkin).

Last October, Washington announced that the U.S. Cyber Command was targeting individual Russian information warfare operatives to deter them from interfering in America’s midterm elections. The thinking seemed to be that if Moscow’s agents knew that the United States had identified them, they would think twice about undertaking hostile actions. Even though the Trump administration had been unable to make Russian President Vladimir Putin forego cyberwarfare all together, it might at least be able to weaken the effectiveness of the Russian offensive at the operator level.

The story grabbed attention both because it indicated that the United States was shifting toward more offensive cyber operations, and because it signaled that the Department of Defense’s cyber capabilities would be used to directly support the Department of Homeland Security. But what may ultimately prove more important is what this move signifies about the changing nature of deterrence.

The United States has always believed that it is better to prevent aggression than to fight a war. Hence, deterrence is vitally important. What makes it tricky, though, is its essentially psychological nature: For deterrence to work, adversaries must believe that the costs of aggression or subversion will outweigh any benefits. Deterrence takes place—or doesn’t—inside the enemy’s head. Strategists must be astute students of psychology in order to understand which threats work and how best to package and communicate them.

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