Escalation Firebreaks in the Cyber, Conventional, and Nuclear Domains: Moving Beyond Effects-Based Logics
49 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2018 Last revised: 29 Jan 2018
Date Written: January 17, 2018
Is nuclear strategist Herman Kahn’s effects-based escalation ladder still pertinent in the information age? Despite the growing literature on cyber security, most studies have sidestepped important questions of how conflict escalates in the cyber domain. To better understand this dynamic, we advance two main theoretical pathways of escalation, one in which actors respond with increasing intensity based on the effect of an attack, irrespective of how it is conducted (through cyber, conventional, or nuclear) and another in which the means of attack determines the actor’s willingness to escalate. We then test those effects- and means-based pathways with an original experiment that probes support for escalation, focusing on the American public, a key actor in debates about nuclear escalation and deterrence. Our study suggests that cyber attacks create a threshold that restrains the escalation of conflict. Americans are less likely to support retaliation with force when the scenario involves a cyber attack even when they perceive the magnitude of attacks across domains to be comparable. Our findings therefore cast doubt on the credibility of policy maker assertions that cyber attacks will be treated “like any other attack” and more broadly the logic of cyber deterrence that rests on the U.S. having the political resolve to retaliate for a cyber attack.
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