Affordances of Violence, Cyber Warfare and Neutron Bombs

"[The neutron bomb] is almost the ultimate expression of capitalism and technology. A bomb that destroys people and not property, like it or not, is an admirable feat in the realm of technology. [..] I think it's a perfect expression of where we are in this country right now, in this society. It's almost inevitable."
Hunter S Thompson, speaking at UC Boulder, 1977

"..cyber war will not take place. [..] Instead, the opposite is taking place: a computer enabled assault on violence itself."
Thomas Rid, Cyber War will not take Place, 2013


This post is an exploration and comparison of the affordances of the neutron bomb and cyber warfare, with respect to their effects on destruction of people and property. Specifically this post is an examination of how both of these technologies affect people and property differently. Looking strictly at the affordances of these technologies, we argue that mostly, the neutron bomb destroys people and not property, while cyber warfare, if we can call it that, destroys property and not people. This post does not argue that these technologies are strictly opposites in their dichotomous effects. There exist instances in which a neutron bomb may destroy property, and instances in which cyber warfare may kill people. Rather, this post argues that primarily, these technolgies are generally at opposites with one another in terms of affordances.

Key to the argument this post makes is the physical dichotomy between people and property. We are limiting our investigation into the physical properties of these technologies. This post is not interested in destruction of intellectual property, nor is this post interested in the human psychological effects of nuclear warfare. This post also rejects humans as potential property, so slavery is not considered. We will not explore deterrent effects of either technology. We touch on, but do not fully explore the intent behind the deployers of these technologies. We will focus our attention on the physically rooted affordances of these technologies and their effects.

To do so we will first define exactly what these technologies are by investigating the physical effects of the neutron bomb, and comparing cyber warfare to established physical effects of conflict. Relying on Gibson's theory of affordances1 to do the heavy lifting, we will tease out the affordances of these two technologies. Armed with this knowledge we can then investigate exactly how opposite these technologies are in terms of our people and property dichotomy.

The Neutron Bomb

The neutron bomb was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Labs in 1958. Its inventor, Samuel Cohen, called it, "the most sane and moral weapon ever devised."2 It is an enhanced low-yield nuclear fission device. Its warhead is designed to limit the blast radius, while simultaneously increasing the output of high energy fast neutrons. This results in both a reduction in shock wave and radioactive fallout. It can be deployed from bombers, missiles and even artillery shells. Its intended use is to explode approximately 100-200 meters over the target area.

Most of our data on neutron bombs and their effects comes from computer simulations and declassified data of unknown origin. Thankfully, we have very little real world experience with the neutron bomb. This means that while our understanding of its effects may not be perfect, it should suffice for our purposes. The following explanation of the neutron bomb's effects are derived entirely from Neutron Bombs and the Environment.3

If we assume a one kilo-ton explosion 100 meters above ground level we can estimate the various areas of effect(AoE). To start with, everything within 10 hectares of the epicenter will be completely annihilated. Moving out, within a 270 hectare AoE people will be incapacitated within five minutes, recover within an hour, then die within four to six days. In the next AoE, that of 520 hectares, 50% of people will die slowly and painfully within a few days to several weeks. The remaining people in this AoE will suffer increased risk to diseases associated with high dosages of radiation such as cancer, leukemia and lymphomas. We call this the potential lethality AoE. Outside of this potential lethality AoE there would be very little effect, including very little fallout and residual radiation.

With regards to other organisms the effects vary based on complexity. With more complex organisms, such as mammals, being susceptible at greater distance from the epicenter than less complex organisms, such as plants and insects. Specifically, within a 490 hectare AoE most mammals would die, while complex plants such as trees would need to be within a 390 hectare AoE to die. Most insects would need to be within a 100 hectare AoE to die.

What is interesting for our purposes is that outside the smallest 10 hectare AoE the neutron bomb causes no effect on inorganic matter. Even residual radiation, or fallout, is limited. It is also worth noting that the lethality of the neutron bomb is actually increased over a similar atomic bomb of the same kilo-tonnage. In comparison to a neutron bomb, an atomic bomb of equal kilo-tonnage has five times more AoE that would suffer complete annihilation, but only 30% of the neutron bomb's total potential lethality AoE. So while a 1 kilo-ton standard atomic bomb will annihilate everything in a 50 hectare Aoe, its potential lethality AoE is limited to 150 hectares. This inversion of annihilation to lethality is key to our understanding of the neutron bomb relative to a standard atomic bomb. It is this inversion of effect that gives credence to the argument that the neutron bomb affords lethality while simultaneously sparing property.

We must also consider that some organic matter is also property. The most obvious being crops and livestock, while less obvious examples are parks, wild game and pets. These are all property even if we don't regularly recognize them as such. They are also things which military planners would have considered collateral damage in the event of a neutron bomb detonation. So while it may seem compelling to say a neutron bomb does not effect property. That statement is only true if you limit your definition of property to the inorganic, and ignore the relatively small 10 hectare AoE of total destruction.

Cyber Warfare

Before we get started understanding the affordances of cyber warfare we need to define exactly what it is. First, there are two distinct definitions of cyber that we should clarify. The first is cyber as in cyberspace. This is a definition in which cyber takes on the meaning of virtual, or associated with computing and the Internet. The second definition is cyber as in cybernetics. Or the extension of the human body's central nervous system through technology. This definition covers everything from guide dogs, to prosthetic limbs and remotely controlled drones. We are interested in the former definition of cyber, that which involves the virtual phenomena of the Internet and computing. This post is not interested in remotely controlled drones or robots, which operate strictly in physical meatspace.

The United States Air Force(USAF) defines cyberspace as, "a domain characterized by the use of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum to store, modify, and exchange data via networked systems and associated physical infrastructures. "4 What is interesting about this definition is the word physical. In the same document the USAF goes to great lengths to concern the reader with the physical aspects of warfare in cyberspace. It continues, "Since cyberspace is defined as a physical domain within the electro-magnetic environment, then warfighting in cyberspace is also about physical operations. It is not about creating virtual effects or attacking adversaries in some kind of virtual reality."4 To the USAF atleast, cyber warfare is about creating physical effects via virtual, or cyber, means.

This is interesting when taken in the context of more traditional definitions of warfare. Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general who fought against Napoleon in the eighteenth century. His book, On War, is generally cited as the greatest theoretical work on understanding warfare. In On War von Clausewitz defines warfare as, "an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will." He further distills this to three main points. Warfare is; an act of violence, a means to an end, and political in nature.5 Focusing on point two we can see where the USAF's definition of cyber warfare and von Clausewitz's definition start to align. The USAF sees cyber warfare as being a means to a physical end, as does von Clausewitz. Both give credence to the physical. Also, both establish war as an act, or succession of acts, which bring about some effect. The USAF doesn't speak much to the policy requirements of cyber warfare, but that should not deter us from understanding that cyber warfare has as its intent to affect policy outcomes. The USAF only engages in conflict, be it in cyber or meatspace, because politicians command it.

It's von Clausewitz's inclusion of violence in the definition of warfare where we see the alignment between traditional warfare and cyber warfare start to cleave. This is also where our dichotomy of people and property enters the picture. Violence by definition involves organisms. To initiate violence means to affect people, or at the very least another living being. We cannot have warfare without violence, if cyber warfare cannot affect people it is therefore not violent, and also not warfare. Perhaps the question of whether cyber warfare is actually warfare is irrelevant. However, the question of whether cyber warfare can kill people is incredibly relevant, and as we'll see in the next section, largely unresolved.

Cyber Warfare as Sabotage

Thomas Rid is certain that cyber warfare is not warfare. He sees cyber warfare as more akin to traditional acts of subversion, espionage or sabotage.6 These acts, while typically political means to an end, lack the violent aspect of von Clausewitz's three part definition of warfare. For our purposes we will ignore the subversion and espionage affordances of cyber warfare. We are interested in affordances of cyber warfare which can lead to loss of life, and these two types of acts have traditionally not. Even during the cold war, when the United States and the Soviet Union committed constant acts of subversion and espionage against one another, there were unwritten rules between the CIA and KGB that shunned killing agents. While not necessarily peaceful, subversion and espionage rarely lead to loss of life. On the contrary, sabotage is interesting because it regularly leads to loss of life, even if that loss of life is not the direct intention of the saboteur. Both sabotage and cyber warfare afford violence in the same manner, through indirect means, and often by accident.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines sabotage as, "Destruction of property or obstruction of normal operations, as by enemy agents in war."(Jost 1993) Here again we have a reference to property and the physical, without any direct reference to violence or death. In his book, Guerilla Warfare Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, had this to say about sabotage and death, "Acts of sabotage are very important. It is necessary to distinguish clearly between sabotage, a revolutionary and highly effective method of warfare, and terrorism, a measure that is generally ineffective and indiscriminate in its results, since it often makes victims of innocent people and destroys a large number of lives that would be valuable to the revolution."8 Guevara deploys our dichotomy between people and property to explain the difference between sabotage and terrorism. On Guerilla Warfare is a how-to manual for launching your own Marxist insurgency. Key to Guevara's philosophy on warfare is his belief that any successful insurgency must have the people on its side. By deploying our dichotomy Guevara is explaining that killing innocent people is not helpful to an insurgency, but sabotage does not kill innocent people. Therefore a successful insurgency should commit acts of sabotage, but not terrorism.

However, we all know that sometimes sabotage can lead to death. Simply saying that sabotage is different than terrorism does not mean destroying a bridge cannot indirectly cause death. There is no way to employ explosives surreptitiously without sometimes killing. Guerillas can use explosives to destroy a bridge with a train on it, or destroy the same bridge when the train is not on it. The former is an act of terrorism, while the latter is an act of sabotage. In meatspace the difference lies in the intent, not in the actual affordance. Instigators of cyber warfare might face the same decision if we employ computers to keep us alive. In the same way a bridge affords the train to cross it, and keep its passengers from falling into the ravine, computers can afford us life as well.

Consider a computer system that routes trains through a rail network. If it fails, or is reprogrammed to intentionally cause trains to collide, people will likely die. The instigator in this instance can choose to have it fail safely, or in a manner which would more likely lead to loss of life. Again the difference lies in the intent. We cannot design a bridge to gently lower its burden to the ground if it explodes. Gravity is constant. However, unlike meatspace, we can design computer systems to fail gracefully. We can design computer systems in combination with physical hardware that prevents terrible accidents from happening. Not that we always do, or that we're necessarily good at doing so, but we can. We can also patch known vulnerabilities in computer systems once we're aware of them. A given method for maximizing destruction in our train example will only work once, since after the first time the system will be patched, and changes will be made to provide increased safety. Contrast this with using explosives to destroy bridges. Where the technique to destroy one bridge is strikingly similar to all other bridges. Given enough explosive material and an ability to evade capture, our bridge saboteur can destroy numerous bridges with the same method.

Examples of Cyber Sabotage

Unlike the neutron bomb we have actual examples of cyber sabotage. One of the most cited examples of cyber sabotage was a massive distributed denial of service(DDOS) attack against Estonia. On April 27, 2007 Estonian officials moved a Russian World War II statue from a central square in Tallinn to the outskirts of town. This sparked online action and violent street riots which included one death. For a period of three weeks Estonian web sites and Internet services suffered outages and lost revenue. The damages due to the DDOSing were measured in time and revenue lost due to downtime. There were no physical damages, and no one was hurt.6

Another often quoted example of cyber sabotage is the Stuxnet computer virus that destroyed Iranian nuclear enrichment equipment between 2005 and 2010. The Stuxnet virus was designed by Israeli and American intelligence agencies to replicate its way to the Iranian nuclear program and slowly destroy uranium enrichment centrifuges. It was highly successful, both at destroying centrifuges and for operating undetected for such a long time. Interesting for us, this is the first instance of cyber action we know of that explicitly focused on physical destruction of property. Again no one was hurt.6

At this point in history it is difficult to say if Estonia or Stuxnet type actions will become the norm for what we deem cyber warfare. If Stuxnet like acts of state sponsored sabotage start happening more frequently someone may eventually die. However, if future acts of cyber action look more like the Estonian example, cyber sabotage will remain benign.


In this post we have shown that to the extent we rely on computer systems to keep us alive, we are vulnerable to death via cyber attack. In Gibson's terms we could say that, to the extent our environment requires existential reliance on cyber means, the more easily cyber warfare affords killing. Whether we want to call this cyber warfare or cyber sabotage is largely irrelevant. It is just important to note that state sponsored cyber action sits much more comfortably in the established definition of subversion, espionage, or sabotage than it does warfare. For the most part cyber warfare does not easily afford killing, while it very easily affords destruction of property.

The neutron bomb is largely opposite with respect to affordances, and equally murky at the edges. Primarily the neutron bomb affords killing of complex living organisms. Compared to more typical nuclear weapons, the neutron bomb affords killing of living organisms more than property. Since most of the complex living organisms are the living organisms we care about, it is easy to say that the neutron bomb affords killing without destruction of property. However, as we have shown, not only does the neutron bomb afford total annihilation in a small AoE, it does not discriminate between living organisms which are property, and those which are not.

The neutron bomb and cyber warfare are close to being opposites with respect to our physical dichotomy of people and property. Our dichotomy is not perfect, but it's close. The neutron bomb's affordances are fixed, but cyber warfare and our existential reliance on connected machines is evolving. There may come a day where we are so reliant on machines that destroying or reprogramming those machines regularly kills us. I doubt it. More likely there will be accidents in our development of these machines that so terrify us we adopt increasingly conservative safeguards. We can't base our understanding on hypothetical deaths in a metaphorical war. Until someone actually dies as a result of cyber action it is probably safer to assume that it's impossible, than attempt to predict the future.

In the meantime it remains an important distinction in understanding the current limits of cyber warfare. If cyberwarfare cannot kill people, than all the money we are spending on protecting us from cyber warfare is being spent on protecting our property alone. We are not threatened by cyber action, only our property is. This is an important fact that regularly gets left out of policy debates discussing cyber warfare and cyber threats. This omission benefits those who sell equipment and services related to cyber defense at the expense of the public good.

  1. Gibson, James J. 1986. "The Theory of Affordances" The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 127-143. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 

  2. McFadden, Robert D. 2010. "Samuel T. Cohen, Neutron Bomb Inventor, Dies at 89" The New York Times, December 1. 

  3. Westing, Arthur H. 1978. "Neutron Bombs and the Environment." Ambio Vol.7, No.3:93-97 

  4. Fahrenkrug, Lt Col David T. 2007. "Cyberspace Defined." The Wright Stuff, Air University, May 17, 2007 

  5. von Clausewitz, Carl. 1873. On War. Translated by J.J. Graham. London 

  6. Rid, Thomas. 2013. Cyber War will not take Place. London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd. 

  7. Jost, David A. et al 1993. The American Heritage College Dictionary. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

  8. Guevara, Che. 1961. Guerilla Warfare. New York: Monthly Review Press