In its ongoing war of resistance against Russian interlopers, the Ukrainian military has from day one displayed dazzling prowess on the front lines in one particular domain: cyberwarfare. Not only has Ukraine been able to withstand attacks on its Internet infrastructure by the Russian military — and fend off destructive smash-and-grab attacks by Russian military cyberunits — Ukraine has comprehensively won the cognitive warfare battle, too.
In Taiwan, many voices are questioning whether the nation is sufficiently prepared to fight a similar battle within the cyberdomain.
Any attempt to invade Taiwan would include cyberattacks to paralyze the normal operations of government and commerce, with the aim of sowing chaos and weakening the public’s will to resist, thereby ensuring a speedy resolution to the conflict.
However, it is possible that, like Russia, China could become bogged down in a stalemate were it to launch an invasion of Taiwan.
Certain things need to be done to improve the resilience of the nation’s online defenses, as well as the military’s ability to launch counter cyberattacks.
Regarding infrastructure, the basic operational components required for an online network include external power and communications systems, servers, databases, operating systems and computer terminals at various levels within a network. The network could also include a satellite and terrestrial wireless communications system.
To resist attack and damage, online networks primarily rely on backup infrastructure and parallel systems, so that multiple redundancies are designed into the network — or as a popular Chinese idiom states: “A wily hare has three burrows.”
The government and private-sector companies should establish backup servers and databases across dispersed locations. The government should also consider an external backup of primary network connection facilities and databases within a trusted nation, which would be connected to Taiwan.
Additionally, the war in Ukraine shows the effectiveness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet constellation. The government should consider leasing use of the Starlink system as a network backup of last resort.
The experience of the past few years shows that Taiwan’s Internet would probably struggle to resist a cyberattack. Were it to occur, Taiwan could see a repeat of chaotic scenes such as the toilet-paper panic-buying mania in 2018, during which there were signs that external manipulation was exacerbating the problem.
Ukraine has contained Russian cyberattacks through the mobilization of the entire society, as well as with assistance from the US government and technology companies. There is much that Taiwan can learn from Ukraine’s experience.
Ukraine has received high praise for its achievements in cognitive warfare, punching well above its weight and almost single-handedly leading international opinion on the war.
Clearly, Ukraine has also received a great deal of support from democratic nations around the world, which includes cyberattacks directed against Russia and many spontaneous offers of assistance, as well as solidarity and cooperation from many different nations’ militaries and civic organizations.
The organizational planning by the Ukrainian government has been absolutely essential. For example, the contributions to the cyberwar effort made by Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, who is just 31 years old, have been nothing short of exceptional.
Fedorov’s development of adaptable software systems and apps such as the Kyiv Digital smartphone app, which provides information on public relief and public services, has given Ukrainian citizens peace of mind during extremely trying times.
Providing peace of mind among a populace is key to defeating cognitive warfare attacks. The government must closely study the methods adopted by Fedorov and his team of digital specialists, and complete the necessary groundwork now so that Taiwan is prepared for any eventuality.
While cyberwarfare units within Taiwan’s military possess the ability to initiate counterattacks against Chinese cognitive warfare, civilians and private groups — in particular social media groups — should do their bit by amplifying Taiwan’s voice online and rebutting Chinese misinformation with the truth. Ukrainians have led the way in this respect and provide an excellent model for Taiwanese to emulate.
To be effective in cyberwarfare — both offensively and defensively — preparation is key. The lesson from Ukraine is that the importance of the cyberdomain cannot be overlooked: Adequate preparation in the digital space is just as vital as building conventional military defenses.
Hsu Cheng is a professor emeritus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Translated by Edward Jones
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