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“Six out of ten internet users worry about cyberwars,” reported IT industry association Bitkom in early 2019. It is possible that for many people, the survey conjured up a danger that they had never considered before. But still the story provides a number of points for reflection.

What exactly is a cyberwar, and what do we mean by the term? Could it occur outside of Hollywood sci-fi thrillers? In light of high-profile attacks and the daily activities of criminals and infiltrators in cyberspace, these questions may seem provocative. According to the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), there were around 800 million types of malware in circulation in 2018, 25 percent more than in the previous year. But the editorial team at “Ethics and Armed Forces” has nevertheless decided to press the metaphorical reset button. 

The introductory article looks at how the threat situation has developed. Despite an increasing tendency to wage inter-state conflicts in cyberspace, using sometimes spectacular DDoS attacks, disruptive software and “weapons” like the famous Stuxnet worm, there is still no consistent understanding of central categories like war and peace in the cybersphere. To contain the risk of escalation, dialog and agreement on key concepts seem all the more important, taking cues from existing disarmament processes and regimes.

Several authors then proceed to examine whether and to what extent it is appropriate to talk about a “war” in cyberspace. It soon becomes clear that this is not an abstract problem of definition. Attempts to pacify the cyber domain via an international law approach have evidently not been very suitable so far. So why has an escalation not happened yet? Why should we nevertheless concern ourselves with the real political risks of its development? 

This also raises the question of whether our distinction between internal and external security is still applicable in a “contested space” like cyberspace. How can or should the state regulate the internet realm, to guarantee security? An internet activist and opposition representative in the German Bundestag and a department head from the German interior ministry set out their respective positions. 

The increasing digitalization of communication and weapons technology, together with the fear of cyber attacks – for example against critical infrastructures – have led militaries all over the world to prepare for operations in the digital sphere. Germany has established the Cyber and Information Domain command centre (Kommando Cyber- und Informationsraum, KdoCIR) for this purpose. Essays by high-ranking representatives of the Bundeswehr and NATO in this issue’s special feature reveal their assessment of the threats, and what their response strategies are. 

As always, the editorial team would like to thank everyone who played a part in producing this edition of “Ethics and Armed Forces.” Given the rich and varied discussion, we deliberately avoided using the term “cyberwar” in the collective title for this edition. We take the view that you, our readers, have no need for such emotive words to reflect on the many ethical and security implications of waging digitalized conflict.