Strauss Center News

Updates from the Strauss Center and our affiliated distinguished scholars and fellows


Schmitt on Cyber Weapons and Humanitarian Law

May 1, 2020 |

Michael Schmitt, Professor of Law at the University of Reading, Francis Lieber Distinguished Scholar at the Lieber Institute at West Point and Distinguished Scholar with the Strauss Center, co-authored an article for International Law Studies titled Classification of Cyber Capabilities and Operations as Weapons, Means, or Methods of Warfare.

Schmitt and co-author Jeffrey Biller of the US Air Force Academy discuss 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.

Schmitt and Biller conclude 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.

Read the full article here.