The Subversive Trilemma of Cyber Operations

Art by Josan Gonzalez

For three decades, states have engaged in cyber conflict. Scholars have expected new information technologies to change the rules, even the end of conventional warfare. It seems that, like many other things in our over hyped cyber economy, cyber operations tend to fall short of their promise (my emphasis):

Although cyber conflict has existed for thirty years, the strategic utility of cyber operations remains unclear. Many expect cyber operations to provide independent utility in both warfare and low-intensity competition. Underlying these expectations are broadly shared assumptions that information technology increases operational effectiveness. But a growing body of research shows how cyber operations tend to fall short of their promise. The reason for this shortfall is their subversive mechanism of action. In theory, subversion provides a way to exert influence at lower risks than force because it is secret and indirect, exploiting systems to use them against adversaries. The mismatch between promise and practice is the consequence of the subversive trilemma of cyber operations, whereby speed, intensity, and control are negatively correlated. These constraints pose a trilemma for actors because a gain in one variable tends to produce losses across the other two variables. A case study of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict provides empirical support for the argument. Qualitative analysis leverages original data from field interviews, leaked documents, forensic evidence, and local media. Findings show that the subversive trilemma limited the strategic utility of all five major disruptive cyber operations in this conflict.

Maschmeyer, Lennart. ‘The Subversive Trilemma: Why Cyber Operations Fall Short of Expectations’. International Security 46, no. 2 (25 October 2021): 51–90. https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00418.
Table 2, Op. cit.

Not surprisingly, the over hyped super-duper-world-cyberhacker-nation-state, yes Russia, has become an appealing target and is being hacked at an unprecedented scale.

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Featured Image, by Josan Gonzalez

One comment

  1. Interesting… but I have to admit that it pretty much went straight over my head, too many terms with which I’m entirely unfamiliar.

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