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How could a cyber attack trigger NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence clause?

A cyber attack could trigger NATO's Article 5 mutual defense clause if it causes mass casualties or takes down critical infrastructure, experts told Grasswire

With cyber attacks on the rise, NATO has decided to heavily invest in its defense capabilities. In July, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had serious concerns about the latest developments in the cyber domain.

“NATO has decided, and we are now implementing, a strong reinforcement and strengthening of our cyberdefenses,” he said during a visit to Ukraine last month.

The statement followed a reminder that a major cyber attack against one NATO member can trigger Article 5, the alliance’s collective defense principle.

Despite growing concerns about cyber threats, the alliance’s latest official update on the rules of engagement in case of a cyber attack was issued in 2014. It did not provide any specifics and mentioned that a decision on when Article 5 should be invoked would be taken on a case-by-case basis.

The case for Article 5

Michael Brady, Citadel Fellow of Intelligence and Security Studies, told Grasswire that NATO’s cyber strategy is still in its infancy and will not reach maturation for many years.

He said there is a limited number of scenarios that could put the alliance’s principle of common defense in motion.

“A cyber offensive originating from a nation state that results in catastrophic destruction of critical infrastructure would likely trigger Article 5,” Brady said. “I’m not sure many members of NATO would support military intervention and subsequent military losses for cyber offensives that didn’t kill a certain percentage of its population or cause widespread destruction to critical infrastructure.”

Nazli Choucri, Professor of Political Science at MIT, told Grasswire that a plausible scenario for a cyber attack that invokes Article 5 includes massive damage and a known source that admits being the initiator of the damage.

“But this is an extreme and rather unlikely case,” she noted.

Brady, who served as the director of Presidential Emergency Operations Center in the White House under President George W. Bush, explained that during a large-scale cyber offensive, a hostile nation-state would seek to target satellites, electrical grid, nuclear power plants, water treatment and air traffic control facilities.

“There are other cyber offensive operations including propaganda, fake media, social media manipulation, stock market manipulation and other similar operations that would not likely result in Article 5 for various reasons,” he said, noting that those actions are considered criminal activities.

At present, the world is witnessing a fundamental change and transformation in the character of war, U.S. Cyber Command head Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone said on Tuesday.

“We should anticipate cyber attacks, not only cyber attacks in an area of conflict but against the homeland, certainly against our critical infrastructure and key resources,” he said at the TechNet Augusta forum.

Nakasone suggested that Ukraine is currently serving as a testing ground for cyber warfare.

It is “a virtual training center, some might call it, for a well-resourced cyber actor,” he said.


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