Tomorrow’s cyberwar? Lessons from Ghost in the Shell

Publication date: 05 March 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Fictional franchise and legendary manga series, Ghost in the Shell provides valuable insights into the ways in which cyber-warfare may develop in the 21st century, say Nicolas Minvielle and Rémy Hémez.

Science fiction books are a laboratory for innovations and cybernetics or ‘cyber’ is no exception. Indeed, the US government's consideration of cyber as a threat was born of a fictional work. cyber war

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan watched the movie War Games at the White House. The screenplay made an impression on him and he questioned his generals about its credibility. They replied that: ‘The problem is even more serious,’ and so, 15 months later, the first official document concerning what later came to be called ‘cyberwar’ is signed.

No one today denies the importance of cyber, especially in the military. The turning point was in 2007-2008 when the US army hacked Iraqi insurgents' messages and the Israeli military created virtual Syrian radar stations during Operation Orchard.

However, where cyber will go in the future is hard to predict, but fiction can often help us to suggest ways forward. One notable example is Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese media franchise originally based on Masamune Shirow’s seinen manga series which has been addressing these issues since 1989.

The time of cyber-arms

In Ghost in the Shell, the immediacy and the speed of combat, as well as the necessity to cover both attacking and defensive actions, are of key importance. We see the heroes simultaneously preparing defences, ‘pinging’ the opponents' defences, and sending viral attacks while scanning their physical environment.

However, while setting up cyber-warfare happens extremely quickly in the fictional world, this is not the case in the real world The most complex cyber-weapons require long and thorough preparations. The computer virus Stuxnet (uncovered in 2010) would have required at least three years of work, for example.

Ghost in the Shell also highlights the complexity of cyber-conflicts and the human limitations of attacks. Hence the necessity for numerous human-machine collaborations. The ‘Tachikoma’, a kind of intelligent autonomous armoured vehicle, often intervenes to support cyber-actions. We also see virtual ‘partners’ who ‘float’ around the protagonists to meet the need for ultrafast reaction capabilities.

Accessible but perishable weapons

Cyber-weapons are accessible to anyone with the requisite computer expertise; not just governments, but individuals too. Indeed, non-governmental individuals and bodies have already caused significant damage. For instance, 2017’s WannaCry virus, which targeted the UK National Health Service’s outdated Windows operating systems, and the success of Iraqi insurgents in taking control of US drones. However, even if cyberspace is still not the subject of any binding treaty, cyber-operations remain the preserve of the largest powers because of their complexity.

Each new technology is quickly obsolete, posing the question of the ability of actors to remain ahead: a cyberattack is only effective once. In Ghost in the Shell, the viruses used in an attack are soon abandoned or removed from the cyber-combat zone.


Cunning and the element of surprise is fundamental to the success of a cyberattack. In Ghost in the Shell, a character called the Major often disguises her attacks as innocent system searches. The manipulation of information systems is often effective. For example, a search engine optimisation (SEO) technique known as ‘black hat SEO’ allows you to dominate the list of results on keywords for a few hours before Google intervenes. Offensive cyber-actions can also include denial of service, use of malware, and other diversionary tactics.

Cyber and manoeuvre

In Ghost in the Shell, cyber-control is always integrated with physical attacks. Before a physical offensive, cyberattacks first attempt to confuse or wear down opponents. The real-life military understands this principle well, and wherever possible any physical fighting is preceded by a struggle to gain superiority in cyberspace.

During a physical attack, the hacking of zone sensors could divert enemies. After a physical attack, combatants in the manga series often take control of data nodes and latch onto the enemy’s machines to infiltrate further. Hence the question of network security if one or more machines are seized by opponents: will the soldiers still be able to use the emergency erasing key? Is it not possible to recover data despite everything?

Will the fighters of the future be digital or analogue?

Ever attentive to realism, Ghost in the Shell’s author also describes scenes in which an over-dependence on technology causes problems. Thus, one of the heroes is neutralised by a single defective audio component. This too is a concern for real-life military: the ability to carry on fighting in a degraded mode if one technological component fails is recognised as extremely important.

In each fictional cyberspace interaction, the Major takes precautions bordering on paranoia and therefore triggers an arsenal of barriers, countermeasures and safeguards: any object, any connection can become a threat. This digital dependence highlights the importance of the analogue dimension. In certain situations, an unconnected fighter can become a real asset, as he/she is then immune to hacking risks and can more easily avoid being detected.

In the end, Ghost in the Shell is of course not reality. There are still many obstacles to overcome before cyber-warfare can be fully integrated into real-life battles. That said, one can only imagine the challenges that await military leaders who are trained only in real-life warfare. These leaders must now begin to explore the potential of combining cybernetics and actual warfare. The first part is to recruit, train and retain large numbers of cyber-experts.

Yet new and increasingly complex questions continue to arise. For instance, will the virus that we are using against the enemy one day be turned against us the next? Strange as it may seem, works of science fiction can help provide valuable insights and actions to prepare for the use of cyber in future conflicts.

Nicolas Minvielle is Professor of Design and Strategy at Audencia Business School and is Academic Director of its French-language Specialised Master’s in Marketing, Design and Creation.

Rémy Hémez is a French Army Officer and an expert in the academic field of the use of force.