WASHINGTON — As water has no constant form, there are in warfare no constant conditions.
- Sun Tzu, 'The Art of War'
When Chinese strategist Sun Tzu penned his timeless classic on military philosophy more than a millennium ago, there's no way he could have imagined the Internet as battlefield.
Now, hundreds of generations later, a new corps of his compatriots has seen the future of war - and it's online.
A recent article in the Chinese Liberation Army Daily was direct in its assessment that integrating Web warfare with combat on the ground will be essential to winning future conflicts.
Add to that a heightened effort by the United States to protect crucial online infrastructure and you have what one cyberwarfare expert calls the onset of a "cool war."
The envisioned period is one in which power grids, air-traffic control, and even e-commerce are in danger of cyber A-bombs.
So serious is the perceived threat, the White House will unveil this month a series of near-term and long-term measures aimed at protecting vital national infrastructure.
"The recommendations are going to be very solid and, if followed, will help considerably," says David Tubbs, chief technical officer at Talon Technologies in Huntington Beach, Calif.
The measures range from implementing an intrusion alarm system guarding federal computer networks to the creation of a cybercorps patterned after college ROTC units.
"We take seriously the threat to US computer systems," says Jim Fallin, a spokesman at the National Security Council in Washington. "We are taking prudent precautions to defend the Defense Department as well as other federal agencies' [computer] systems."
Broad use of the Internet in warfare has mushroomed in recent years.
In Chiapas, Mexico, Zapatista guerrillas used it to jam government Web sites and disseminate information and misinformation.
While propaganda is one of the many weapons in cyberwarfare, the most feared is the one leveled at disabling or bringing down systems and networks, says Dorothy Denning, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University here.
"The launching of viruses and denial-of-services attacks might be serious enough to impact a power grid or telecom system," Ms. Denning says.
Indeed, China and Taiwan have already used the Internet to launch attacks, hacking into each other's sensitive government sites and planting "flags"- online messages indicating that a break-in occurred.
But with publication of the recent Liberation Army Daily article - seen as an indication of China's willingness to launch paralyzing software - concern is growing over America's dependency on computers.
"This whole area of cyberwarfare is ... the biggest threat to critical infrastructure in the US," says Ronald Williams, a former Secret Service agent, now chief executive officer of Talon Technologies.
US government planners have already simulated attacks against transportation, banking, and utility systems across the country.
"We are the broadest and easiest target in the world," says John Arquilla, a professor of information technology at the US Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Mr. Arquilla has long studied the use of information warfare and suggests the emergence of China economically and militarily, as well as its willingness to conduct cyberwarfare, will fundamentally alter the way war is conducted in the future.
Whether there will ever be a time when cyberwarfare is internationally acceptable is still unclear. However, the US has already engaged in it during the Kosovo crisis.
In the final 10 days of the campaign, when Serbian forces suffered 80 percent of their losses, the US military was reportedly involved in hacking into Serbian air defense systems.
But wider use against purely civilian targets, including hospitals and power grids, is still considered off-limits - in the spirit of the Geneva Convention's mandate against attacking civilian populations.
Nevertheless, a wider international agreement is needed, say some analysts.
"The most important question today is: Can we have cyber arms-control?" Arquilla asks, pointing to the potential for damage in an information-dependent economy.
This fall, the US military centralized its cyberwarfare effort at Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., taking the best of the antihacking efforts each service had under way.
The Pentagon is also creating the Joint Task Force Computer Network Attack, which could be used to attack enemy computers during war. The task force will begin next year, developing offensive computer viruses and techniques to deploy them.
Despite China's public posturing on cyberwarfare, the announcement could be more about strategy than actual intent, according to some China watchers.
"I'm not trying to sugarcoat China's behavior," says China expert Nancy Bernkopft Tucker at Georgetown University here.
But, she adds, "it's in America's interest not to be alarmist. It serves their interests if we say, 'Oh my gosh,' and run around concerned."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society