By Pawel Plonka
Thirty years ago, world militaries would not have imagined the significance of the digital in modern-day warfare. Military affairs in relation to capabilities have experienced revolutionary changes since the Gulf War, especially concerning the development of precision-guided munitions. Yet, as the 1990s were a watershed in the redefinition of military strategy, the 2020s seem to carry a similar weight. Recent years refreshed the memories of actors around the globe that war does not take place only on land, at sea, or in the air — it also occurs in the cybersphere. In 2023, the Canadian Defence Minister remarked: ‘Putin’s war on Ukraine has reminded all of us that the cyber domain is crucial to our national security’. The interesting cases to look into are two powers threatened by Moscow and Beijing respectively - Poland and Japan. While they do not share much in common, these states can learn a lot from each other’s experience of enhancing cyber capabilities.
Already in 2016, Professor Christopher W. Hughes of Warwick University and Paul Kallender of Keio University wrote:
Japan has been overlooked as a ‘cyber power’ but it is now becoming a serious player in this new strategic domain. Japanese policy-makers have forged a consensus to move cybersecurity to the very core of national security policy, to create more centralised frameworks for cybersecurity, and for Japan’s military institutions to build dynamic cyberdefense capabilities.
In hindsight, they could not be more right. The Japanese drive for increased cyber-capabilities has continued for years now. Between 2018 and 2019, the spending on cyber-defence doubled after the growth in the personnel of the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) Cyber Defence Group. War in Ukraine and an increasingly unfriendly environment in East Asia gave these directions a new impetus manifested by the three security documents published in 2022 (the National Security Strategy, the National Defence Strategy, and the Defence Buildup Program). These documents were created within the spirit of a ‘proactive contribution to peace’, enabling stepped-up investment in power projection capabilities. They set out a goal to double the state's national defence budget by 2027, rendering it the third largest one in the world. ‘An active cyber defence’ posture was adopted by Tokyo. The measures comprise necessary mandates enabling the government to access and neutralise an attacker's servers preemptively. Moreover, the military will reinforce cybersecurity throughout the country to protect critical civilian and informational infrastructure. These ambitions accompany the further growth of the personnel in cyber-related units to 4,000 by 2027, quadrupling its present size. Cyber workforce associated with the Ministry of Defence would also expand, reaching 20,000. Japanese regional rivals’ cyber-related staffs encompass an estimated 175,000 and 7,000 in China and North Korea, respectively. These countries have violated the Japanese cybersphere the most in recent years. China is believed to have directed cyberattacks at 200 Japanese organisations, while North Korea continuously performs malicious and illicit cyber-activities to finance its nuclear weapons programme. Overall, in the first half of 2022, Japan experienced 114 ransomware attacks, marking an 87% surge compared to the preceding year. These dynamics reflects both shifts in global security challenges and a major paradigm shift in the regional security outlook of the Indo-Pacific.
Cooperation also emerged as a core point in its refined cybersecurity strategy. Firstly, Japan intends to deepen and solidify its strategic relationship with the US, also in the cyber domain. Washington is of paramount importance for regional stability and Tokyo is of great significance for safeguarding American interests and recently acting as a ‘spear’ within the security alliance. The collaboration between countries would materialise in bilateral exercises, joint intelligence as well as surveillance and reconnaissance. Such integration of capabilities and doctrines, which Professor Hughes named ‘Bilateralism Plus’, also occurs through Japan’s engagement in extended cooperative formats, which actually strengthening the US-Japan alliance. In December 2023, Japan, South Korea and the US agreed to cooperate on countering North Korean cyber incursions. The new trilateral initiative addresses Pyongyang’s cybercrimes and cryptocurrency money laundering activities. Lastly, acknowledging an increasingly hostile cyber environment in East Asia, Japan has decided to build a cyber defence grid for the Indo-Pacific. This initiative would support the nations with weak countermeasures with funds to bolster their cyber capabilities and balance the Chinese influence in the region. This project also aligns with the broader strategy of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific — the Japanese Foreign Ministry has allocated around $75 billion towards investments in South and Southeast Asia focused on fostering regional cybersecurity and connectivity.
Similarly, the cybersecurity strategy was developed in Poland before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, that moment left a mark on the political awareness regarding the cyber domain. Polish Cyberspace Defence Forces were officially created in February 2022. This specialised component of the Polish Armed Forces is responsible for addressing issues concerning the cybersecurity of the Ministry of Defence, including planning, organising, and operationalizing cyberspace activities. It will also build infrastructure and safeguard information in cyberspace. Additionally, the unit supports military operations and coordinates cyber-related pursuits with other defence institutions. Although the official number of ‘cyber warriors’ remains undisclosed, Lieutenant Col Przemysław Lipczyński of the Component’s Command says there are approximately 6,500 positions for soldiers and employees of the Ministry of National Defense. Moreover, Lt Col Lipczyński reports the units will be fully operational by 2024. Significantly, Poland emphasises the significance of the partnerships between its cyber defence components and the private sector. The military looks forward to collaborating with businesses specialising in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, quantum technologies, and the improvement of information systems’ security and communication. Such partnerships increase national research and development with regard to cybersecurity. Warsaw’s efforts to enhance the state's cyber capabilities, improve the personnel’s competencies and become a regional security leader have been recognized globally. In 2023, MIT published an annual Cyber Defence Index ranking states’ collective cybersecurity assets. Poland secured 6th place in the world, after Australia, the Netherlands, South Korea, the US and Canada. Similarly to Japan, the experienced paradigm shift was a result of intensified cyberattacks performed by groups organised by Moscow. Poland’s proximity to Ukraine and its regional significance as a major logistical hub play a crucial role in the context of a war happening beyond its borders. From February 2022, Russian Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actors’, i.e. state or state-sponsored criminal groups gaining unauthorised access to computer networks, violations increased fivefold. Together with American units, Polish cyber warriors were already training and carrying out operations against these groups.
In terms of international cooperation, Polish Forces partnered with NATO to establish round-the-clock points of contact for cybersecurity coordination and threat analysis. They also outlined a framework for NATO's response to major cyberattacks on Poland and initiated collaboration with the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. Additionally, bilateral cooperation with the United States was developed to synchronise military efforts in cybersecurity and capability enhancement in cyberspace. Similar agreements were made with Lithuania and other nations, including a significant partnership with Ukraine to deepen understanding of Russian cyber operations.
Every regional security outlook has its own particularities, yet it should not stop partners from drawing lessons. Japanese and Polish experiences during the past years can enrich each other’s understanding of ways to increase and enhance cyber capabilities, to create a better defence against operations of malicious actors as well as act both preemptively and effectively. A deeper military cooperation is one way, another is an adjusted and augmented cooperation between the governments to increase the citizens’ awareness of cybersecurity. Existing collaborative institutions such as the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology in Cracow could serve these functions well. Poland appears to strengthen its ties with like-minded states from the Indo-Pacific region exemplified, e.g. by an intensive cooperation between Warsaw and Seoul in terms of arms procurement in 2023. Tokyo, entangled in an unfriendly setting with Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s sabres ready to be pulled out, can also learn a lot from Eastern Europe.