The Potentiality of an India-Pakistan Cyber Conflict

Author Name: Aneeqa Safdar      21 May 2020     Cyber

The changing financial, social, and political fabric of the world in the wake of COVID-19 has paved way for another intangible entity to unleash in its full fury. While the world grapples with the coronavirus, the cyber attackers with their virulent tools are all geared up to exploit the vulnerabilities in the systems. Whether it be the attacks on health-care institutions like the World Health Organization or the defacement of government websites by politically motivated hackers’ groups, like S1ege hacking Indian government websites to protest IOJK curbs; the cyber threat landscape is already heating up.


Numerous reports suggest that cybercriminals are exploiting the pandemic situation to their advantage and the security in cyberspace is being compromised. For example, the success of regular phishing techniques has been enhanced by tricking people into COVID 19-themed scams. Similarly, the work from home model is also equipping the malicious actors to compromise organizations’ security. Nevertheless, this immediate bustle of criminal activity in cyberspace ultimately leads us to ponder upon another related threat; the inter-state cyber aggression.


India is currently witnessing a war like situation in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Similarly, its domestic state of affairs is also in a mess. Therefore, chances of Pakistan’s eastern neighbor indulging in a false flag event like the 2016 Uri incursion or the 2019 Balakot strike, despite the COVID-19 crisis, seems a possibility. The recent statements by Indian political and military leadership corroborate this hypothesis. India is desperate to divert global as well as domestic attention from its atrocities in Kashmir, from its governance failure in tackling the pandemic, and from its ongoing assault on its largest minority community, the Muslims. The Prime Minister of Pakistan has rightly cautioned the world about India’s efforts to find a pretext to justify its military action against Pakistan. Under such an environment, can a cyber-attack be part of the ‘next Pulwama’? The potentiality can’t be ruled out.


In a recent web-seminar hosted by an Islamabad based think tank, the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies, regarding the ongoing crisis in Kashmir, a question was brought up from the audience about the prospects of a cyber-attack in case of a military standoff between India and Pakistan or otherwise? The panelists in their considered opinion, agreed to the plausibility as not just economies and society depended upon technology and data, but also the command and control structures.


Although the capabilities the two countries possess in the cyber domain (defensive and offensive) are not an open-source knowledge, however both states have been known to inculcate cybersecurity in their defense postures. More recently, especially in India, cyber power has been making rounds in its strategic circles where they designate cyber strategies and deterrence as the new ‘normal’ of national power and advocate cyber-warfare enabled armed forces. The setting up of a tri-services command in 2019, the Defence Cyber Agency (DCA), was also a step in this direction. The agency is also expected to contribute towards formulating a future cyber warfare doctrine for India that would pave the way for integrating cyber warfare with conventional military operations.


As generally agreed by the scholars and practitioners, the cyber-space is not yet a refined domain of warfare (nevertheless it is maturing each day). It is rightly regarded as a mass disruptor rather than a mass destructor. However, its integration with conventional military operations as seen historically in the Russo-Georgia war and later in Ukraine-Russia conflict over Crimea, can certainly provide a strategic edge. The lack of specific regulation in international law regarding cyber conflicts and its other attributes like non-requirement of physical strength also make it a weapon of choice. Especially, in the times of the current pandemic where all states are facing economic crunch like never before, and cannot afford a conventional attack, the cyber power can be an effective tool of combat. Pakistan, keeping in view its vulnerabilities in cyberspace, which range from the lack of a definite policy framework to a substantive national-level cyber defense apparatus, needs to map the cyber threat landscape and prepare accordingly.


While the states all over the world fight with the coronavirus and their militaries help their governments battle against this invisible enemy, the combat preparedness is not being compromised. Whether it was the United States’ reluctance to completely evacuate Theodore Roosevelt (the US Navy’s aircraft carrier where service members were confirmed positive for coronavirus) from the Pacific, or the North Korean State, which augmented its missile tests to an unprecedented level amid the outbreak, the business as usual continues. Hence with the strategic environment in the subcontinent broiling, thanks to India’s continued belligerence, Pakistan also needs to look into its cyber readiness alongside the conventional readiness.


The writer is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies. This article was first published in Regional Times newspaper. She can be reached at