Do Submarine Data Cables Require Better Security?

Submarine data cables may be invisible, but they are responsible for 99 percent of the world’s digital communications. In a recent article, Christian Bueger and Tobias Liebetrau review the security implications of submarine data cables and outline a research agenda for the future.

Submarine data cables are the core critical infrastructure of the digital age. 99 percent of the world’s digital communications transit through the global cable network: Zoom meetings, emails, hotel reservations, flight bookings, and financial transactions depend on it. All of this data does not travel through satellites or the air, but physical fiber-optic cables that lay on the ocean floor. With the current trend toward remote work, the increasing use of cloud storage and the arrival of 5G and the Internet of Things, industrial production, public services, and our everyday lives will become even more dependent on the smooth working of undersea cables.

The global submarine cable network needs to be governed and protected, but it also has risks and vulnerabilities, and indeed the potential to spur new forms of tensions and conflicts. To date, the network has mainly been viewed in narrow, technical terms, despite its importance for national and international security, geopolitics, and statebuilding and development.

Security Concerns

While protecting and controlling submarine communication infrastructure was a core part of security calculations during the two World Wars as well as the Cold War, in the post-Cold War environment uncontested US naval hegemony and the primacy of non-state threats moved such issues to the margins.

Renewed concerns center around the rise of hybrid warfare, the perceived hostility of Russia’s foreign policy, fears of a large-scale cyber-attack, and the growing technical sophistication of terrorist groups. Some experts have begun to consider the undersea cable network as a national security priority and have called for military responses to mitigate such threats, including increased naval patrols and surveillance activities.

The calls were largely triggered by observations of Russian submarine activities in territorial waters and in proximity to cable routes—which became public in 2015—raising concerns that the Russian navy may tap into cables for espionage and surveillance purposes, tamper with them, or even cut them as part of a hybrid warfare campaign.

Others suggest that undersea cables are inherently susceptible to attacks from non-state violent groups and terrorism since their location is usually public, cables tend to be highly concentrated geographically, and the level of technical expertise and resources required to damage them is limited.

So far, no intentional hostile disruptions to the submarine cable infrastructure have been reported publicly. The scenarios underpinning the threat discourse seem to be built not on prior incidents but on overall assessments of the geopolitical landscape. Arguably, this implies that the threat scenarios being discussed could be exaggerated and suggests a substantial risk of threat inflation and fearmongering.

The Geopolitics of Submarine Cables

Cable systems establish particular forms of transnational relations that often extend or transcend conventional bilateral or regional forms of cooperation. Some countries have a particularly important position in the international cable system, acting as connecting points between political regions.

Cables are, however, increasingly spurring geopolitical concerns. Contemporary geopolitical dynamics concerning the new fiber-optic cables are particularly revealing in at least two regards: the return of geopolitical inter-state contestation and the rise of transnational technology companies as geopolitical players.

Geopolitical competition primarily revolves around two centers of gravity—the United States and China—but pledges to digital sovereignty, technological sovereignty, cyber sovereignty, and data sovereignty are increasingly seen throughout the world.

One example of the geopolitical importance of the submarine cable network and its entanglement with digital sovereignty is the Clean Network Program, announced by the United States (US) in August 2020, which includes five lines of effort—in addition to 5G—to counter China’s influence on US telecommunication networks, mobile app stores, software apps, cloud computing, and undersea cables. The goal of the program is to safeguard sensitive citizen and private company information from intrusions by malign actors.

In Europe, the Portuguese government announced earlier this year that it intends to “focus on the strategic creation of a European Data Entry Platform based on submarine cables, in particular for links between Europe, Africa, and South America, to contribute to greater European digital autonomy, linking infrastructures and data.”

It is, however, not only Western countries that are occupied with the crucial geopolitical role of undersea cables. While discussions among BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) of a shared undersea cable system appear to have been abandoned, major international players, including individual BRICS countries, either have or are planning to build their own submarine cable networks, to bypass what they perceive to be the US-dominated internet and associated surveillance risks demonstrated by the Snowden revelations. The expansion of the cable system is part of the Chinese “Digital Silk Road” strategy.

The rise of transnational Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) companies is intrinsically entangled with the geopolitics of emerging and disruptive digital technologies and infrastructures, as well as the renewed great power rivalry. The entanglement is evident when thinking of the undersea cable network as an economic trade route carrying the most important commodity of the information age: data.

Until recently, highly specialized international telecommunications conglomerates laid and operated most of the undersea cables, but over the past decade, it is increasingly American tech giants or other state-owned companies that control this critical infrastructure. Internet content and cloud service providers, such as Facebook or Google, now own or lease more than half of the undersea bandwidth and they are behind about four-fifths of transatlantic cable investment planned in 2019-2020. The Chinese company Huawei has also heavily invested in undersea cable systems all over the world. Huawei Marine, its submarine cable subsidiary, deployed over 50,000 kilometers of submarine cable, including 12 submarine cable systems in Africa from 2008 to 2018, before being sold in 2019.

Such trends raise concerns over digital sovereignty, but also the practices of surveillance, algorithmic governance, and cyber security that shape and are shaped by global tech companies. It also raises the question of whether the cable network can be governed as a global common.

Small States and Fragile States

The cable issue goes beyond the industrialized nations that have hitherto been the center of attention. States require stable connectivity for future growth, but they are often dependent on a single, sometimes badly secured cable connection. Breakdowns can lead to major economic harms.

States that are particularly vulnerable are those that are reliant on one or two cables, are in remote locations, such as small island states, or are developing or recovering economically. In 2019, accidental damage to the single cable connecting the Pacific Island state of Tonga took two weeks to repair and caused considerable economic damage. The tourism sector—the country’s main source of income—was hit particularly hard, with all flight and hotel bookings halted.

Cable protection also concerns fragile states and those recovering from civil war. The importance of cable infrastructures for democratic transitions and participation of civil society should not be underestimated. There is hence a need to feature cable governance into statebuilding, interventions, and post-conflict reconstruction programs. Whether and how violent conflict and terrorism can directly threaten the system—intentionally or not—is also of concern.

Whether it concerns small island states or post-conflict states, efforts to secure submarine cable connections should be included in development, peacebuilding, and capacity-building projects.

Protecting The Undersea Cable Network

While many of the threat scenarios of deliberate attacks to cables are over-exaggerated, there is a need to zoom in on the actual vulnerabilities the network faces, mainly accidental damage and non-human hazards. Accidents or malfunctions stemming from marine activities such as fishing and shipping account for at least 40 percent of the damage done to the undersea cable infrastructure. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, and sharks feature among the non-human threats. Much of the protection of the cables will continue to revolve around mundane technical tasks.

Other vulnerabilities are linked to weak governance, lack of law enforcement, and the absence of effective regulatory policies. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—the primary legal regime governing submarine cables—states are asked to establish national legislation concerning the functioning and protection of the system, including criminalizing the destruction of theft of a submarine cable. Yet most states have not fulfilled these obligations, and in many countries, it is unclear which government agencies are in charge. There is an urgent need for countries to review their protection regimes and strengthen the implementation of existing legal obligations.

Submarine cables must also be considered in broader maritime management and marine spatial planning processes. States could, for instance, establish cable protection zones over submarine cables of national significance in order to prohibit or restrict activities in zones where damage is likely to occur. While such approaches are viable within territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones of a coastal state, the majority of cables are in the high seas, and rights and responsibilities under international law—both of states and ICTs—are ambiguous at best. There is even no agreed-upon definition of cables under international law. Other challenges arise in situations where maritime boundaries have not been delineated or are subject to ongoing contestation and disputes. No international governing body is in charge of overseeing and protecting cables or addressing disputes.

Legal analysts suggest that an ideal solution would be the development of an international treaty specifically on the protection of undersea cables, for which there appears to be little appetite. Other suggestions for enhancing the regulatory regime span using the structure of the UN counterterrorism conventions over proposals for the creation of national cable protection zones, to the deployment of an international agency rooted in the UN system with legal and policy responsibility for submarine cables, which could lead the development of additional law. The negotiation of the new treaty for the high seas under the header of Biodiversity beyond National Jurisdictions could also potentially provide new opportunities for cable protection in international waters.

Overcoming The Triple Invisibility Problem

Physically, submarine cables lay underground, and they are out at sea, rendering them largely invisible. There is a tendency to pay little attention to what happens at sea more generally—a phenomenon that has been described as sea blindness.

Like other types of infrastructure, they often go unnoticed until they fail. It is when streets close, shipping routes are blocked, or the electric power grid fails that we recognize our dependency on them.

Given that data is the defining resource of the twenty-first century, protecting submarine cables is far too essential a domain of international politics to remain a technical addendum to security studies. It concerns how our digital futures will be governed, and how a global free, open, and secure circulation of data can be ensured.

A debate is required on how cables should be governed at the global level, how the different actors can be orchestrated, the industry is regulated, responsibilities and rights are clarified, and which global governance and United Nations bodies are in charge.

Christian Bueger is a professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, and one of the directors of SafeSeas. He tweets at @c_bueger. Tobias Liebetrau is a postdoctoral researcher at Sciences Po, Paris. He tweets at @TobiasLiebetrau. They are the authors of the article “Protecting hidden infrastructure: The security politics of the global submarine data cable network”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

This blog post first appeared on the IPI Global Observatory.

Call for the 2023 Special Issue

CSP CoverContemporary Security Policy is seeking proposals for a special issue to be published in January 2023 (volume 44(1)). The special issue should address a topic within the aims and scope of the journal. CSP has an impact factor of 2.640, which ranks the journal #29 out of 94 in the category International Relations.

One of the oldest peer reviewed journals in international conflict and security, CSP promotes theoretically-based research on policy problems of armed conflict, intervention and conflict resolution. Since it first appeared in 1980, CSP has established its unique place as a meeting ground for research at the nexus of theory and policy. Major fields of concern include:

  • War and armed conflict
  • Peacekeeping
  • Conflict resolution
  • Arms control and disarmament
  • Defense policy
  • Strategic culture
  • International institutions

CSP is committed to a broad range of intellectual perspectives. Articles promote new analytical approaches, iconoclastic interpretations and previously overlooked perspectives. Its pages encourage novel contributions and outlooks, not particular methodologies or policy goals. Its geographical scope is worldwide and includes security challenges in Europe, Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Authors are encouraged to examine established priorities in innovative ways and to apply traditional methods to new problems.

Special Issue Information

Special issue proposals should contain (in one PDF document):

  • A short discussion of the rationale and contribution of the special issue (3 pages max). Please also state why the topic falls within the aims and scope of the journal and why the proposal would be of interest to a large audience.
  • Contact details, institutional affiliation, one paragraph biography of the special issue co-editors, and three recent publications of each of the co-editors. Feel free to include a link to the personal website of the co-editors. Do not submit full CVs.
  • A list of confirmed articles and authors. Please include for each article (a) the title; (b) 150 word abstract; (c) a very short statement how the article contributes to the special issue and why it needs to be included; (d) a one paragraph author biography; and (e) three recent publications of the author(s).
  • The current state of the special issue. Please describe the background (e.g. previous workshops and conferences) and the timeframe towards the submission deadline.

The special issue will consist of a substantive introduction and 6-7 articles. The introduction should stand on itself. It should serve as a state-of-the-art article and be a reference point for all the other articles in the special issue. It is recommended that special issue proposals include 9-10 articles. All articles will be sent by the journal for peer-review on an individual basis. It is unlikely that all articles will eventually make the cut.

Most articles in CSP are around 9,000-10,000 words (including notes and references). However, manuscripts up to 12,000 words are accepted, for example when they include multiple case studies or use mixed methods. Total word limits will be discussed in case of acceptance.

Please submit your application (one PDF file) to csp@nullmaastrichtuniversity.nl. The deadline for the special issue proposal is 26 November 2021. The decision will be announced soon afterwards. The decision by the editor is final. All articles, including the introduction, will have to be submitted by 18 March 2022. The full special issue should go into production in October 2022.

Strategic cooptation and India as nuclear power

Patrick Frankenbach, Andreas Kruck, and Bernhard Zangl show how India was strategically coopted into the existing non-proliferation regime. Their recent article in CSP holds lessons for all international institutions that need to adjust to changes in the global order.

Shifts in the global distribution of power put the international order and its underpinning institutions under stress. As powers such as China and India rise and powers such as the US or the UK decline, international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or the World Trade Organization (WTO) come under pressure to adapt to new power realities.

The prevailing view is that the adjustment of international institutions to a changing distribution of power is a highly conflictual process of power bargaining. (So far) dominant preservers of the status quo wrestle with rising revisionists, exchanging threats and trying to force the other side to give in. If anything, this power game is assumed to be particularly conflictual in security (institutions).

Our recent article on India’s inclusion into the nuclear non-proliferation regime belies this conventional narrative. Instead, it underlines the relevance of a different mode of institutional adaptation, namely strategic cooptation. In 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a major component of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, terminated the three-decades-long embargo on nuclear trade, which it had imposed after India’s nuclear tests in 1974. India turned from a nuclear pariah of the international community into a de facto recognized nuclear power.

The NSG waiver constitutes a cooptation deal in which NSG member states – led by the US, but supported by other nuclear powers – traded institutional privileges in return for India’s increased institutional support of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The US and the other nuclear powers offered India the privilege of being recognized as nuclear power and taking part in international nuclear trade. In return, India promised to support the nuclear non-proliferation regime by shoring up its nuclear export controls and making the majority of its nuclear sites subject to IAEA safeguards.

India’s cooptation into the nuclear non-proliferation regime reflects a mode of institutional adaptation that is more cooperative than the prevailing narrative of the highly conflictive power-bargaining between rising revisionists and declining preservationists would have it. Cooptors actively pursue limited institutional adaptation desired by cooptees to keep the institutional core intact.

Strategic cooptation is a mutually beneficial mode of cooperation among unequal actors that exchange institutional privileges for institutional support. Cooptation is common and widely studied in domestic political settings, but it is also relevant for institutional adaptation to global power shifts, even in the realm of security. It is particularly relevant for international (security) institutions which provide institutional privileges to some states, while denying them to others.

The general focus in academia and among many policy-makers on conflictive great-power bargaining obscures the importance of strategic cooptation. This is problematic because it comes with the neglect of three important features of institutional adjustments to global power shifts:

First, for some challengers of the institutional status quo, who are willing and able to provide needed institutional support, relying on strategic cooptation (making promises) may be a superior strategy compared to power bargaining (issuing threats). Sometimes strategic cooptation is not only better suited to attain institutional adjustment; it is also less conflictive and allows to nurture cooperative relationships. On the other hand, defenders of the institutional status quo should not simply assume that challengers will engage in power bargaining. After all, policy responses that are adequate for addressing power bargaining are often counterproductive in dealing with strategic cooptation. Starting negotiations with promises rather than threats often leads to better outcomes. The negotiations between the US and India about the latter’s integration into the nuclear non-proliferation regime are a case in point.

Second, a strategic cooptation approach sensitizes observers and policy-makers to important conditions for achieving institutional change that are overlooked in the power bargaining account, namely third-party resistance to power-sharing deals between emerging and established powers as well as institutional opportunities for overcoming it. The nonproliferation regime–India case underlines that it is often third parties that put up strong resistance against cooptation agreements. When the US announced in 2005 its intention to lift the embargo on trade with nuclear material, resistance from non-nuclear “middle powers” was massive: A group of “like-minded states” comprising Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand formed to stop India’s recognition as nuclear power, with New Zealand taking the lead. This group – rather than the nuclear great powers – rejected India’s recognition as nuclear power. For the deal to materialize, it was crucial that proponents could strike the deal within the more exclusive NSG rather than the more encompassing NPT context, thus managing to circumvent the third-party resistance typical of any cooptation deal. More generally, policy-makers should take into consideration the potentially fierce resistance (middle or even minor) third parties might put up against any great power bargain and they should weigh the institutional opportunities for overcoming this resistance.

Third, even then cooptation is not a panacea for stabilizing troubled institutions. The story of India’s cooptation suggests we should not take for granted the medium- and longer-turn effectiveness of cooptation as a means of stabilizing international institutions. The cooptation of India did not silence other critics of the NPT among the “nuclear have-nots” nor did it stabilize the status quo of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Quite the opposite: India’s cooptation further alienated dissatisfied non-nuclear weapons states under the NPT, thus widening the gap between nuclear powers and non-nuclear weapon states. Criticizing the nuclear deal with India at NPT Review Conferences, several non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT (but not the NSG) took offense with the privileges granted to India. If anything, India’s cooptation created growing resentment and increased criticism of the regime centered around the NPT, which ultimately contributed to the quest for the new Nuclear Ban Treaty.

Thus, academics and policy-makers alike should more seriously consider the option of cooptation as a mode of institutional adaptation. However, they should not simply equate agreement on a cooptation deal with longer-term stability for the institution in question. Expected contributions to institutional stability may not fully materialize or they may provoke unintended consequences – often precisely due to lasting third-party resistance.

Patrick Frankenbach, Andreas Kruck, and Bernhard Zangl are researchers at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institute for Political Science, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany. They are the authors of “India’s recognition as a nuclear power: A case of strategic cooptation”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Ambiguity of hybrid warfare

Understanding what hybrid warfare means to political and military representatives allows us to correctly interpret country’s policies and countermeasures. In a recent article, Silvie Janičatová and Petra Mlejnková analyze the British political-military discourse on Russia’s hostile activities, and the role of defense policy in countering it. This gives us a bottom up understanding of hybrid warfare.

“Hybrid warfare” and “Russia” have become connectively used words in political, military, academic, or even public spheres almost on daily basis since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Still, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in describing what hybrid warfare means, let alone the correct use of the term itself, which is further reinforced by conflicting arguments about the novelty of this concept. Such lack of clarity raises the question of how a particular country and its leaders understand hybrid warfare, which has important implications for formulating respective policies and countermeasures.

This article focuses on the British political-military discourse on hybrid warfare in the context of Russia’s hostile activities and the role of defense policy in the period 2014-2019. However, rather than examining this issue solely by applying the concept itself, as compared to other studies, a bottom-up approach, qualitative content analysis with quantitative aspects in particular, is used to obtain results from 68 primary sources of various actors relevant to British defense. The analysis itself aims at three areas: terms used to describe Russia’s hostile activities; Russia’s hostile activities abroad and their perception including corresponding tools and methods; and UK’s response to Russia’s hostile activities.

The results provide number of interesting insights and allow to indicate further implications. For example, the representatives not only used a wide range of different terms to describe Russia’s hostile activities, which corresponds with the overall ambiguity of hybrid warfare and its conceptualization and which tends to approach this issue in a further context, but the quantitative perspective further showed that they highlighted information and cyber warfare more often in comparison to other particular components of hybrid warfare definitions.

In the context of the UK, this calls for a more unified understanding of the issue, whether it could be in the form of adopting NATO’s approach to hybrid threats or formulating UK’s own perspective, for example, within the MCDC Countering Hybrid Warfare Project which the UK is a member of. And since there is naturally a risk of creating more ambiguity than there already is, it is crucial to base such an approach on facts and proper understanding of Russia’s aims, tools and methods, since it would have additional implications for response measures.

Similarly, while keeping in mind the limits of generalization of one case study, these results also deserve some attention in regard to the hybrid warfare debate since they raise the question whether hybrid warfare is not really just a label primarily used for political purposes and it is really more suitable to research the particular components – an approach already held in academic circles.

Another example is the role of defense policy in countering hybrid warfare in the context of Russia, which was undoubtedly recognized in the British political-military discourse, although its engagement was considered being ultimately dependent on the nature of a particular hybrid threat that Russia poses. The results and their analysis may represent a helping tool in interpreting British strategic documents (including the potential differences between the political-military discourse and the documents), decisions made in relation to defense (such as preferences in development of particular capabilities or support of certain propositions at NATO level), or related countermeasures. And if additional data and governmental actors were added to the analysis, this approach could also be adopted towards other British policies which are impacted by the same threat.

Last but not least, the article shows that focusing on hybrid warfare within a particular discourse can provide interesting insights into particular country’s understanding of the concept as well as respective policies and countermeasures. The case study of the UK could thus serve as an example for researching political-military discourses in other countries/institutions that also have to deal with such a threat, in order to generate more data and even provide some comparisons, and the applied bottom-up approach, which proved its usefulness in analyzing such discourse, may represent a way how to achieve it.

Silvie Janičatová and Petra Mlejková are researchers at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, the Czech Republic. They are the authors of “The Ambiguity of Hybrid Warfare: A Qualitative Content Analysis of the United Kingdom’s Political-Military Discourse on Russia’s Hostile Activities and the Role of Defense”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

 

 

Word length

We have increased the word length requirements for our journal. We now suggest that articles can be up to 10,000 words, or 12,000 words when they include multiple case studies or use mixed methods. We have noticed that our submissions are increasingly ambitious in terms of methods and original data. At the same time, the discipline (rightly) demands a comprehensive discussion of the literature. We hope that increased word length facilitates both.

In practice, we have always been flexible and have allowed authors more space when required. Indeed, we feel that research should not be constrained by things like word length. We have now updated the formal requirements in line with our practices. We continue to insist that writing remains accessible and concise. Contemporary Security Policy speaks to a worldwide audiences of students, academics and policy professionals. More flexible guidelines require more discipline and this is a key part of our editorial process.

Longer articles also does not mean fewer articles. Our publisher has kindly increased the journal page budget by 25%. So we remain very much open to quality submissions and hope to publish more in the near future, including those that are slightly longer.

UN Peace Operations Will Evolve, Not Disappear

The United Nations currently deploys nearly 95,000 uniformed and civilian peacekeepers in a dozen active operations, at an annual cost of approximately $6.6 billion. Its worldwide deployment of uniformed personnel is second only to the United States. And yet considerable uncertainty surrounds the future of UN peacekeeping. So much so, that last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres established the “Future of Peacekeeping” project to imagine what future peace operations might look like. In a new article, Katharina P. Coleman and Paul D. Williams argue that future evolution is more likely than extinction.

Compared to 2015, there’s been a 24 percent reduction in peacekeeping personnel and a 23 percent reduction in spending. Peacekeeping missions have closed in Côte d’Ivoire (2017), Haiti (2017), and Liberia (2018), while the hybrid mission in Darfur has ceased operations, and the mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to downsize. The UN has not established a new multidimensional peace operation since 2014, and Secretary-General Guterres prefers focusing on preventive initiatives and special political and peacebuilding missions with “light footprints.”

The UN’s missions have also come under financial pressure. The United States under former president Trump and some European countries have sought drastic cost reductions, which the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to intensify. Escalating tensions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council also risk undermining cooperation on peace operations more broadly. Taken together, some observers think UN peacekeeping is in crisis.

These trends and challenges are real, but we shouldn’t write off UN peacekeeping. Peace operations are a highly resilient international institution for managing armed conflict. Their resilience derives from “collective intentionality” and “constitutive rules.” Collective intentionality means that peace operations exist as a distinctive form of international activity because international actors have agreed to recognize them as such. Consequently, peace operations will only become extinct if international actors become convinced that this type of activity (should) no longer exist. Constitutive rules are the set of commonly understood principles that define what counts as a particular socially recognized activity. Constitutive rules are malleable but cannot be changed unilaterally—at least a critical mass of those holding these understandings must be persuaded (or induced) to alter them.

Despite a range of current constraints, challenges, and crises, UN peace operations are unlikely to become extinct unless a critical mass of states consistently withdraw material support for them and explicitly denigrate the concept of peace operations itself. We see little evidence that both these things are likely to occur. However, the constitutive rules guiding UN missions and peace operations more generally are likely to continue to evolve due to ideational and material changes. While the proliferation of actors and mission types makes precise predictions impossible, we expect an evolution in both how various actors define their own peace operations and how these actors relate to each other.

There are four main reasons why continued evolution of UN peacekeeping is more likely than extinction. First, the central problems UN missions are intended to help tackle are unlikely to disappear and ignoring those problems will prove difficult. Limiting war and the threat of war, particularly those that might involve or draw in the great powers, remains an urgent need.

Second, there is robust empirical evidence that UN peace operations work. They are effective at preventing armed conflict, reducing violence against civilians and battle deaths once armed conflict has started, helping belligerents achieve peace, and preventing organized violence from recurring once wars have ended. Moreover, UN peace operations are highly cost-effective both as investments for conflict management and in terms of deployment costs. UN member states are unlikely to reject them indefinitely, though peace operations might become less frequent and more constrained in the absence of great power cooperation.

Third, expressed more negatively, there is no better alternative tool for managing armed conflicts. The comparison between wars where significant peace operations were deployed and wars without such deployments is suggestive, despite the difficulty of comparing conflicts and assessing counterfactuals. To take some recent examples, peace operations have certainly struggled to contain organized violence in several theaters, notably Mali, DRC, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Somalia. However, without peace operations the levels of casualties in these conflicts would probably have been much higher and they do not compare unfavorably with war zones that have not witnessed the deployment of major peace operations, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, and Myanmar.

Fourth, historically, peace operations have persisted through considerable variation in the levels of interest states and organizations have shown in deploying them—especially larger operations with more robust mandates—and rebounded after periods of relative disinterest. The current period of challenges is thus not unprecedented. Indeed, in broad terms, the history of UN peace operations can be depicted as a series of retreats, reflections, and renaissances. The current contraction is no more likely to be permanent than previous ones, given the factors noted above.

Of course, UN peace operations operate within the constraints set by geopolitics. Great powers will remain unlikely to accept peace operations led by other actors in their own conflicts. Diminished great power leadership may reduce the resources available for peace operations. Increased contestation among great powers may further reduce the number of missions, restricting them to areas where there is great power consensus or at least acquiescence. Nevertheless, UN peace operations remain a potentially useful tool for great powers to manage (or appear to manage) a wide range of conflicts. As a result, there is no reason for great powers to make general arguments for abolishing peace operations—and to date, no great power has done so.

Katharina P. Coleman is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. She tweets @KPColeman. Paul D. Williams is Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He tweets  @PDWilliamsGWU. They are the authors of “Peace operations are what states make of them: Why future evolution is more likely than extinction”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

This blog post first appeared on the website of the IPI Global Observatory.

Private Sector Contribution to National Strategies of Cyber Deterrence

More often than not, the delegation of national security responsibilities to private actors has generated controversy. Notable cases include the United States’ reliance on private military contractors in the recent conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence, it may come as a surprise that the current debate around private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence has been largely exempt from such controversies.

On the contrary, a steady consensus has grown around the idea that national strategies of cyber deterrence would benefit significantly from the direct participation of actors in the private sector. In particular, there have been repeated calls for tech companies, cyber-security firms, and owners and operators of critical infrastructure to bring their vast resources to the table in order to boost governments’ ability to fend off malicious cyber activity.

Without dismissing the opportunities originating from the contributions of the private sector, a new article written by Eugenio Lilli highlights how such private contributions could also pose significant security, legal, and moral challenges.

The first step to assess the desirability or not of private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence is to define the concept of deterrence in cyber space. As it is the case with many neologisms containing the prefix “cyber”, cyber deterrence also lacks a universally agreed upon definition. In the article, cyber deterrence is defined as the deterrence of malicious activity occurring within or through cyber space. It is also argued that deterrence in cyber space should be

  •  Restrictive. It should seek to shape and limit the overall frequency and severity of malicious activity rather than aiming at dissuading all attacks from occurring at all times.
  • Comprehensive. It should encompass deterrence by denial, punishment, entanglement, and norms; it should rely on deterrent measures taken in the other operational domains of land, sea, air, and space; it should include the whole range of instruments of national power including diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement (aka DIMEFIL) instruments.
  • Dynamic. In response to rapid technological innovation, it should constantly monitor systems and networks, update defenses, improve intelligence sharing, patch vulnerabilities, and renew contingency plans; in response to change in cyber norms, it should implement measures aimed at actively shaping the evolution of norms in cyber space.
  • Complemental. It should not be expected to work best as a separate tool in an actor’s toolbox but rather, as complemental to other forms of coercive and non-coercive strategic interaction.

By relying on the RCDC (Restrictive, Comprehensive, Dynamic, Complemental) conceptualization of cyber deterrence, the article identifies specific areas where private sector contribution can be especially beneficial to national strategies of cyber deterrence. For example, there is evidence to support the argument that private actors can be instrumental to hardening cyber defenses and enhancing resilience, to sharing information, to imposing costs to adversaries, to attributing cyber incidents, to creating strategic interdependencies, and to advancing norms of appropriate behavior in cyber space.

Some important benefits of private sector contribution appear to be common to all areas. To begin with, the private sector can offer unique state-of-art-technologies, highly skilled human capital, and critical funding to compensate for a national government’s limited resources. Moreover, while government authority is often geographically limited, private actors’ visibility and reach can extend beyond national borders. In addition, compared to the somewhat cumbersome processes of policymaking characteristic of state bureaucracies, private sector processes of policymaking give these actors more flexibility and speed; key abilities given the fast-changing nature of threats in cyber space.

Given the above, it is not surprising that the number of those people calling for more private participation in national cyber deterrence is steadily increasing. However, as it is often the case, the devil is in the details. The opportunities originating from private sector contributions are apparent, yet these same contributions also have the potential to raise serious security, legal, and moral challenges that need to be thoroughly understood.

For example, contracting a private company to host classified military information can give fast-track access to the latest technologies but it could also endanger national security if the private company is successfully breached by a hostile actor. Similarly, private companies, especially big tech companies, usually employ people from the world over. Where would these employees’ loyalty lie in case of heighten international tensions or an open confrontation? With the country which contracted them or with their country of origin?

Moreover, legal considerations could limit the willingness of the private sector to contribute to activities of intelligence sharing and active cyber defense. In the context of the United States both types of deterrence activities, while beneficial, may in some cases violate domestic law.

There are also instances of contributions which raise moral issues. For example, private sector’s access to government’s sensitive information could lead to the abuse of such information for private gain. Private companies are ultimately responsible to shareholders rather than to the citizenry. How can they be held accountable to the nation’s interest? With regard to attribution of cyber incidents, commercial interests could make private actors somewhat biased in their public attributions. In particular, they could refrain from publicly attributing incidents to specific governments because they do not want to jeopardize their access to these countries’ profitable contracts and markets.

To conclude, these few examples show the need for starting a more nuanced debate on the nature and desirability of private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence which is not limited to highlighting the opportunities deriving from it but that also considers the related challenges.

Eugenio Lilli is a lecturer at University College Dublin. He is the author of “Redefining deterrence in cyberspace: Private sector contribution to national strategies of cyber deterrence”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Unity among al-Qaeda groups in the Sahel

In September 2017, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda declared that the unity of effort of al-Qaeda groups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger was as “an example, worthy of emulation, for … Mujahid brothers and Muslims the world over.” Despite many centrifugal forces, the al-Qaeda groups have since then maintained alliance cohesion. As argued by Troels Burchall Henningsen in a recent article, this is largely the outcome of the multi-pronged strategy of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups that shapes local communities and reduces the tension created by communal cleavages. In order to avoid a quagmire, international counter-terrorism and peacekeeping missions need to break the ties among the al-Qaeda groups and their ties to the local population.

In 2017, al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel region formed a new alliance under the name Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Afterwards JNIM has often reached international headlines through a spectacular and brutal use of violence. Behind the headlines lies a multi-dimensional irregular strategy that often gets lost in the policy debate when groups are labelled as terrorists. The strategy makes it possible for JNIM to retain alliance cohesion among groups that recruit from different ethnic and social powerbases. The alliance’s political and informational campaigns promote a common Islamist framework for understanding conflicts and social changes. To this end, JNIM draws on an international repertoire of symbols and narratives developed by al-Qaeda. JNIM is at once a conservative alliance firmly placed in traditional social networks and a revolutionary force that transcends established social boundaries.

The comprehensive campaigns to establish alternative governance may appear rudimentary, but must be compared to the low standards of governance in the impoverished and marginalized regions of Burkina Faso and Mali. Hospitals, Sharia courts, or enforcement of land rights contribute to the everyday welfare and safety of local communities. The fact that militant Islamists live among the local community give them an understanding and motivation to deal with local governance issues. Violence and information campaigns contribute to the establishment of alternative governance. Attacks on security forces and assassinations of state officials and local dignitaries go hand in hand with subtle influencing and intimidation of those responsible for everyday governance, such as schoolteachers or mayors. As a result, diverse communities now gets a more homogeneous governance structure, although it might be covert and violent.

Normally, cohesion among insurgent groups is associated with strong organizations, patient indoctrination of rank-and-file members, or the prospect of winning a war. None of these factors reinforces unity within JNIM. Moreover, the implementation of JNIM’s comprehensive strategy has not been a neat and linear process. Burkina Faso and Mali have witnessed a sharp increase in self-defense militias and criminal groups, many of those challenging JNIM’s bid to govern marginalized regions. In 2020, fights with Islamic State affiliates added to the woes of JNIM. However, the strategy of JNIM situates them at the grass root level of local politics. Their ability to influence or coerce local power brokers across ethnic communities sets them apart from other militant groups, and provides them with a unifying approach.

Now the international military interventions in Mali and the wider Sahel face a familiar, but unsettling situation. The French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane has killed a number of the senior al-Qaeda commanders. The EU training missions have trained an impressive number of soldiers and paramilitary forces. Yet, JNIM maintains a high operational tempo and escalates violence. The first problem is well known from other counter-insurgency operations, namely that JNIM operatives live among the people in marginalized areas, whereas national and international security forces are most often strangers in these regions. The second problem is a lack of consensus about how to tackle JNIM. The military coup in Mali in August 2020 was the culmination of a simmering disaffection with the government, including its inability to curb militant Islamism. However, the political elites in Mali disagree on whether (parts) of JNIM should be included in a reconciliation process. International powers view JNIM in the lens of international Jihadist terrorism and oppose dialogue.

To break the deadlock, one policy approach would be to target the alliance cohesion of JNIM. Many of the current efforts aim at breaking the links between JNIM groups and the local population. Reconciliation initiatives or reforms of local state institutions aim to build the legitimacy of the state, or at least improve its cooperation with local elites who resist JNIM presence. These initiatives are steps in the right direction, but the poor security situation means that military solutions play an outsized role. A comprehensive civilian effort that takes into account local and national political interests would improve this line of effort. A second, more controversial, line of effort is to break the leadership cohesion within JNIM by including parts of the alliance in a national dialogue. Both JNIM and prominent opposition politicians have expressed interest in negotiations. This would be akin to the peace process in Afghanistan, where Taliban formally had to break with al-Qaeda before the negotiations. Maybe the current unity of JNIM requires that international interveners discuss whether al-Qaeda affiliated groups can be part of a political process.

Troels Burchall Henningsen is an assistant professor at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College, Copenhagen. He is the author of “The crafting of alliance cohesion among insurgents: The case of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel region”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Who wants to ban killer robots?

Despite much talk about a killer robots, few states support a ban. In a new article, Ondřej Rosendorf shows that states lacking capacities to pursue killer robots are most in favour of a ban in addition to states with a strong humanitarian orientation.

The advent of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), also known as “killer robots,” presents one of the most significant developments in current military affairs. The possibility of delegating decisions to use force to machines promises to revolutionize warfare, yet, it also raises serious ethical, legal, and security challenges.

Since 2012, a group of NGOs organized under the umbrella of “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” (CSKR) has been advocating for a preventive prohibition of these systems. Much like previous humanitarian disarmament campaigns against anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and blinding lasers, the principal justification for the ban on LAWS lies in the potentially adverse impact of their use for the protection of civilians during times of war.

National delegations are currently discussing LAWS in the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which allows imposing prohibitions or restrictions on weapons deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.

While the initial focus of the GGE was open-ended, discussions quickly gravitated to possible regulatory options, including moratoria, codes of conduct, or a positive obligation to maintain “meaningful human control” over weapon systems. Partly due to active advocacy efforts of the CSKR, the call for a preventive prohibition received the most attention, even though the full potential of the technology is unknown, and there is no universally accepted definition of LAWS.

To date, some thirty countries, including Austria and members of the Global South, have aligned themselves with the view of the CSKR, demanding a ban to address the potentially adverse humanitarian implications of weapon autonomy. The composition of this group is peculiar at first glance since – except for Austria – it does not include any Wester-liberal democracies, traditionally associated with the advocacy of humanitarian norms.

Why have the former leaders of campaigns against anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, such as Canada and Norway, not (yet) expressed their support for the call to prohibit LAWS when their potential use threatens to violate fundamental humanitarian norms? Which countries, if not Western-liberal democracies, are likely to join the group of ban supporters?

The main problem with enlisting additional supporters for CSKR’s cause relates to states’ perceptions of the costs and benefits from agreeing to the prospective prohibition and, effectively, foregoing military innovation in LAWS.

For laggards in technological research and development, a total ban presents an intuitively attractive option because it would preclude the widening of the gap in capabilities vis-à-vis those at the frontier of military innovation. They would benefit from prohibition while giving up little to nothing in return (at least in the short term). Conversely, those capable and interested in exploring military applications of autonomy would pay a disproportionately higher price from foregoing the innovation relative to laggards.

To identify the likely and unlikely supporters of the ban, it is therefore imperative to understand the factors that might motivate states to develop or acquire LAWS in the first place.

  • First and foremost, financial and technological capacities constrain states’ innovative potential. In the immediate future, only the most technologically advanced countries would be able to leverage the potential of weapon autonomy effectively.
  • Second, security threats might motivate states to pursue LAWS to gain an advantage over adversaries. Trends in the use of weapon autonomy indicate that these systems could be especially useful for border protection purposes or counterterrorism operations.
  • Third, the nature of domestic-political structures might generate interest in LAWS. Casualty-averse democracies, and control-seeking autocracies, in particular, could derive specific benefits from weapon autonomy. Yet, certain normative beliefs might also dissuade countries from exploring these benefits.

Accordingly, when we look at the group of ban supporters, what characterizes these states is an interplay of lacking capacities and incentives to pursue innovation in LAWS, on the one hand, combined with stronger humanitarian orientation, on the other hand. An exemplary ban supporter is a country with limited financial and technological capacity, neither established democracy nor autocracy, which actively advocates for the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, with deep socialization within the existing arms control and disarmament regimes.

The reluctance of Western-liberal democracies and many other states to endorse the ban partly lies in the potential for leveraging the benefits of LAWS. This does not necessarily mean they are currently developing these systems. However, the increased receptiveness towards such benefits dissuades countries from committing to a preventive prohibition.

The GGE process will continue until the next Review Conference of the CCW in December 2021, but its outcome remains uncertain at this point. To increase their chances for success, campaigners must expand their supporter base exponentially. The easiest way forward would be to focus on countries from the Global South, rather than attempting to enlist the one “champion state” from among Western-liberal democracies.

Although the unregulated development and use of LAWS are not inevitable, the feasibility of preventive prohibition seems dubious if the CSKR expects militarily significant states to accede. If a regulatory framework is to be effective, it must be perceived as fair by all parties. Reaching agreement on the lowest common denominator – potentially a political declaration – constitutes a more realistic (and much needed) outcome in the immediate future.

Ondřej Rosendorf works at the Institue of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Czechia. He is the author of “Predictors of support for a ban on killer robots: Preventive arms control as an anticipatory response to military innovation”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Changes to the editorial board

Contemporary Security Policy has an active Editorial Board, which reflects its aims and scope and its worldwide audience. The membership of Editorial Board is updated on an annual basis to capture emerging research agendas and to give new colleagues the opportunity to contribute to the development of the journal. I have made a number of changes to the Editorial Board.

First of all, Harald Müller and Ryan Hendrickson have decided to step down from the Editorial Board. Harald Müller published his first article with the journal in 1993 when it was still known as the Journal of Arms Control and Disarmament and he has been with Contemporary Security Policy ever since. Ryan Hendrickson likewise has been a member of the Editorial Board for more than a decade. I want to thank both for their service. Their expertise and experience as leading scholars will be missed.

It is also time to welcome new colleagues. To reflect the development of the journal, I have invited four new colleagues to join the Editorial Board. These are highly qualified scholars, from a variety of countries, who bring along exciting new expertise. Many of them are from the new generation. All of them share a commitment to high quality publishing in peer-reviewed journals. They are also dedicated in terms of policy impact and outreach.

The new colleagues on the Editorial Board are:

    • Yee Kuang Heng (University of Tokyo, Japan)
    • Nicole Jenne (Pontifical Catholic University, Chile)
    • Elvira Rosert (University of Hamburg and Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, Germany)
    • Thomas Waldman (Macquarie University, Australia)

The Editorial Board will continue to be updated in the future.

Hylke Dijkstra, Editor-in-Chief