Mike Schmitt on Cyber Weapons and Humanitarian Law

Professor Michael Schmitt has co-authored an article with Professor Jeffrey Biller of the US Air Force Academy for International Law Studies entitled ‘Classification of Cyber Capabilities and Operations as Weapons, Means, or Methods of Warfare’.

The article discusses how the legal community struggled to keep pace with doctrinal development and technological advances as cyber capabilities were integrated into military operations. Practitioners used the process of “normalization,” adopting terms, concepts, and applications from existing military parlance and practice into the cyber context. In particular, they used terms and doctrine already resident in international humanitarian law (IHL).

While normalization produced acceptable results doctrinally, terminology like cyber attack frequently has different meanings in legal and colloquial discourse. This article examines three terms drawn from classic IHL—weapons, means, and methods of warfare—that are also being applied to cyber operations. They are of particular significance with respect to the use of cyber capabilities during an armed conflict because they are integral to IHL’s various prohibitions and obligations.

The article concludes that cyber capabilities cannot logically be categorized as weapons or means of cyber warfare, but in some circumstances cyber operations may qualify as a method of warfare and are subject to relevant legal prohibitions and limitations, as well as policy restrictions.

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