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What is cyber warfare: Explanation with examples

Cyber warfare is usually carried out by another state or terrorist organizations in the country to disrupt core facilities and national security and create chaos. Some of these cyber threats aim to turn people against the government or even end lives.

What is cyber warfare: Explanation with examples

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is cyber warfare?

Cyber warfare is a structured sequence of cyberattacks against a nation-state that harms vital governmental and civilian infrastructure and critical computer networks or intends to end lives. It includes many different tools and techniques, including hacking, activism, espionage, cybercrime, and terrorism. It ranges from lone-wolf attackers to government-backed operations.

However, cybersecurity experts still debate the definition of cyber warfare, mainly because of the variety of motivations and actors behind each case. Some consider that the aim of cyber warfare is usually either to disrupt and sabotage or to steal confidential information through computer viruses or denial of service attacks. Others define cyber warfare as a cyberattack that results in the loss of life.

Cyber warfare is usually considered an attack from a foreign nation-state. However, it might also involve insider terrorist organizations and anti-state individuals seeking to disrupt, damage, or destroy vital facilities. While such cybercrimes are becoming more sophisticated, cybersecurity experts are mobilizing cyber threat-intelligence tools to minimize the damage of these attacks.

What are the motivations behind cyber warfare?

Cyber warfare is carried out for many different reasons and between various groups. Especially in the 21st century, we’ve seen concerted online efforts by Russia and China to interfere with the democratic processes of the US and its allies. Based on attackers’ motivations, we can classify this form of warfare into four main categories.

Sabotage and terrorism

Many acts of cyber warfare intend to sabotage and cause indiscriminate damage. Cyberterrorism is a growing problem often carried out by lone-wolf operatives or small international terrorist factions. From taking a site offline with a DDoS attack to defacing web pages with political messages, attackers launch multiple cyber operations every year. With infrastructure – including national power grids – increasingly dependent on the internet, cyber sabotage can cause real damage.


Throughout history, spying and intelligence gathering have always been a fixture of international conflict and warfare. While cyber espionage often occurs between corporations, with competitors vying for patents and sensitive data, it’s also an essential strategy for governments engaging in covert warfare. The Chinese intelligence services are regularly named as culprits in such cyber warfare operations, although they consistently deny the accusations.

Civilian activism (Hacktivism)

The growing trend of hacktivism has seen civilian cyberactivists take on governments and authorities worldwide.

Groups like Anonymous have claimed responsibility for assaults on government agencies in the US, while other hacker collectives and activist groups have supported protest movements under authoritarian regimes. In 2022, Anonymous began a targeted cyber operation against Russia, after it invaded Ukraine, in an attempt to disrupt government systems and combat Russian propaganda.


It can be a strategic advantage to take control of an enemy state’s cyberspace. Besides damaging the opponent’s vital infrastructure, cyber infiltration can reveal enemy plans and capabilities. It can help spread disinformation to demoralize the hated individuals or the government and confuse civilians. Cyber access into victims’ systems strengthens traditional military practices and disrupts national defense, often bringing the enemy to its knees, which is the primary goal of any warfare strategy.

What is the main purpose of cyber warfare?

The primary purpose of cyber warfare is to infiltrate the enemy’s cyberspace, spy, disrupt, and create chaos by sabotaging its critical infrastructure and vital computer systems. Cyber infiltration of systems of national importance allows the aggressor to gather secret information about the opponent and mess with their operations. By mastering such digital tactics, nations can weaken their foes and gain an advantage in political, ideological, territorial, or cyber conflicts.

Types of cyber warfare

Cyber warfare may come in various disguises, each designed to target different parts of an enemy’s cyberspace and digital infrastructure. The main seven types of cyber warfare include:


Espionage is the information-gathering phase of cyber warfare and usually involves the hostile nation using botnets, malware, phishing attacks, network interception, or the hacking of IoT devices to steal government information, military plans, or trade secrets. The attacker later uses this data to disrupt critical operations.


During sabotage, the saboteur aims to weaken a polity, government, or organization through demoralization, destabilization, division, and destruction. The attacker gathers information about its victim, assesses the potential threats, and finds its weakest entry points, such as unhappy and negligent employees or government workers associated with the hostile nation. Then, the attacker uses this information to paralyze a nation’s capabilities. Think power grids, communication networks, or transportation systems.

Denial of service attack

An aggressor launches a denial of service (DoS) attack to crash a service or network. They flood the system with fake requests, making it unavailable for legitimate users. DoS attacks turn off critical systems, such as financial and telecommunications services, government websites, healthcare systems, media, and energy and utility providers, which are vital for the government and civilians.

Electrical power grid

Disrupting the power supply through cyberattacks on the electrical power grid may cause deaths and create immense chaos. And that’s the purpose of the threat actors. Usually, hostile intruders use malware to infiltrate systems and exploit vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to the grid’s operations. Prolonged power outages can induce panic, diminish public morale, weaken military operations and defense systems, and possibly force adversaries to negotiate to the aggressor’s advantage.

Economic disruption

Another way an aggressor can gain an advantage is to run cyberattacks on financial institutions, stock markets, and other economic infrastructures. Such attacks usually cause financial loss, manipulate market prices, diminish trust in a state’s financial institutions, and trigger overall market chaos. The worst part is that sometimes attacks on economic infrastructure can block civilians from accessing the funds they need for healthcare, education, and living.


Propaganda is the art of persuading others into believing what they normally wouldn’t. Attackers aim to control the minds and hearts of people who live in or fight for the targeted country. They spread lies, apply false dilemmas or hasty generalizations, and manipulate social media by using bots to amplify specific messages and make people lose trust in their government. Propaganda can sometimes be so persuasive that it causes people to sympathize with the enemy.

Surprise cyberattack

A surprise cyberattack is a sudden and unexpected assault that catches the victim off guard. Aggressors usually plan such attacks meticulously and aim to cause maximum disruption and weaken defenses when the target least expects it. The element of surprise prevents the targeted country from developing a threat management plan, which can have major consequences.

Examples of cyber warfare

While cyber warfare was once largely theoretical, it’s now a very real part of modern military strategy. Let’s explore some real-life examples of cyber warfare.

Russian attacks on Ukraine

Russia’s war in Ukraine provides a terrifying example of cyber warfare. Even before Russian troops swarmed across the border, Ukraine was under near continuous assault from hackers. Many experts observers in Ukraine and beyond believe that these cyberattacks originated from Russia and may be sanctioned and supported by the Kremlin.

In the months leading up to the outbreak of war, Ukrainian websites were attacked and altered to display threatening messages about the coming invasion. New forms of Ukraine-targeted malware aimed at firewalls flooded the country, in some cases, wiping data indiscriminately. These incidents appear to be part of a wider cyber warfare campaign by Russia against Ukraine and its government.

After the invasion began, the hacking collective Anonymous declared a cyber war against Russia and launched a massive barrage of attacks. Russian state media was targeted in particular because it plays an essential part in the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus.

Attacks on the power grid in the US and Turkey

Cyber warfare could have potentially catastrophic impacts like major power outages. Electrical grids are vulnerable to hacking, and in the US, government officials have raised concerns around this issue.

In 2009, reports suggested that both Russian and Chinese operatives had managed to access the digital systems of the US power grid. Ten years later, Russia accused American agents of launching a similar attack against their own infrastructure.

While both occasions caused little disruption, Iranian hackers enacted a similar attack in Turkey. They knocked out the power grid for around 12 hours, affecting more than 40 million people.

Attacks on journalism and the media in the US

In recent years, the number of cyberattacks against journalists and media organizations has increased. While some can be traced back to state-funded attackers, others have been staged by rogue elements acting apparently on their own initiative.

In 2013, a faction in Syria loyal to the ruling party attacked social media and news giants, including Twitter and The New York Times, due to their perceived support for rebel groups in the country.

In the US, the LulzSec hacker collective targeted major news outlets like Fox News and PBS, defacing their websites and altering page content. The same group went on to attack government servers, even managing to take the FBI’s main website offline.

Cyber warfare and free speech

Cyber warfare tools can help both sides in the battle for free speech. In countries like China and Russia, activists and journalists are regular victims of politically motivated hacking and data leaks.

China’s Ministry of State Security has been accused of cyberattacks against organizations involved in the recent Hong Kong protest movement, among many others.

In contrast, cyberattacks can also be used to promote and protect free speech. When Egyptian authorities tried to take the country offline during protests, engineers from Google and Twitter worked to bypass the restrictions. In 2008, the Project Chanology operation in the US saw hackers attacking The Church of Scientology in protest of its attempts to censor the speech of its members.

And in 2022, hackers from the Anonymous collective began targeting Russian state media, in an attempt to disrupt the Kremlin’s grip on the free flow of information. There have been unverified reports of hacked websites and TV stations sharing unrestricted news about Russia’s war in Ukraine — news that Russian authorities would like to suppress.

Final thoughts

Governments, corporations, and the public need to understand the significant dangers of cyber warfare to national security. From cyber assaults on power grids and media outlets to the cyber onslaught faced by Ukraine today, this is the new battleground for both civil and international conflicts.

Cyber warfare tactics are removing the need for boots-on-the-ground combat and rapidly become the primary theater of war for global superpowers. Hostile nations and terrorist cells focus their efforts on targeting civilian infrastructure and critical computer systems. And these attacks are becoming hard to detect, which increases the attack surface.

The complex nature of cyber warfare requires robust defense mechanisms. By staying vigilant and investing in cybersecurity measures, societies can better protect themselves against the rising threats of cyber warfare.