The six-day war between Russia and Georgia may have seemed a scruffy, bloody, almost 19th-century nationalist conflict, but it saw the deployment of what will be a major weapon in the wars of the future: the internet. South Ossetia was, say experts in both technology and military studies, the world's first cyberwar.
Websites on both sides, especially the Georgian one, were knocked out by co-ordinated online attacks. Among them were the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs websites, the online English language dailies 'The Messenger', and 'Civil', and the personal website of the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Skirmishes have been conducted on websites before, notably as part of disputes that Russia had with Estonia in 2007 and Lithuania in July, but South Ossetia marked the first time they have been launched at the same time as ground troops and air strikes. They were even part of the softening-up process, with official Georgian sites coming under attack as far back as 21 July.
Dr David Betz, senior lecturer at the Department of War Studies of King's College, London, said: "We're still in the wooden biplane era of cyber-war. It will get more sophisticated, probably quite quickly. The US has already created units for cyber-defence, so too has China, no doubt Russia, and probably many others."
He said: "If there had been a World Wide Web in the days of the Blitz, then the Germans would have been attacking us on the net as well as from the air and we'd have been doing the same back to them."
The kind of damage a country can suffer from these attacks, according to Dr Betz, is "potentially large and increasing".
For him, this new weapon is likely to be deadliest when combined with other instruments, as was the case with Georgia. "For example, you are physically attacked – say, bombed – then someone screws with your emergency response systems making the situation worse," he said.
"A malicious hack can be conducted by an individual or small group," said Dr Betz. "It also provides a sneaky mechanism to states to attack and cause harm while avoiding retaliation because the identity of the attacker is obscured. For instance, if the Republican of Whatsistan launches a missile at you, you know with a certainty where it came from. Not so with cyber," he added.
Cyber-attacks are inexpensive, easy to mount and will be a significant feature of modern warfare that leaves no fingerprints.
Bill Woodcock, the research director of an American organisation that tracks internet traffic, told the New York Times: "It costs about 4 cents (2p) per machine. You could fund an entire cyber-warfare campaign for the cost of replacing a tank tread."
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