Could offensive cyber operations provide strategic value? If so, how and under what conditions? Whilst a growing number of states are said to be interested in developing offensive cyber capabilities, there is a sense that state leaders and policy makers still do not have a strong conception of its strategic advantages and limitations. I argue that offensive cyber operations could provide significant strategic value to state-actors. The availability of offensive cyber capabilities expands the options available to state leaders across a wide range of situations. Distinguishing between counterforce cyber capabilities and counter value cyber capabilities, I show that offensive cyber capabilities can both be an important force-multiplier for conventional capabilities as well as an independent asset. They can be used effectively with few casualties and achieve a form of psychological ascendancy. Yet, the promise of offensive cyber capabilities’ strategic value comes with a set of conditions. These conditions are by no means always easy to fulfill - and at times lead to difficult strategic trade-offs.
Max Smeets is a cybersecurity postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). He is also a non-resident cybersecurity policy fellow at New America. Max's current book project focuses on the causes underlying cyber proliferation and restraint. The results of his research are valuable for understanding the likely changes in the future prevalence of cyber weapons. It clarifies to what degree this is an ‘inevitable’ development – and if/how it can be stopped. He holds a B.A. from University College Roosevelt, Utrecht University, an M.Phil (Brasenose College) and D.Phil (St. John's College) in International Relations from the University of Oxford.