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80s films where computers could kill will soon become a reality, judging by a new Pentagon project.

Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are but a few defence firms competing for an upcoming $460 million US Cyber Command project. One of the Pentagon’s aims is to turn an enemy’s infrastructure against them, using weaponised code.

Initially, the winning bidder will develop “cyber weapons” to support “cyber joint munitions effectiveness” as well as coordinating with the spy community’s “tool developers,” the tender states.

The Pentagon is looking to develop new capabilities, such as starting “cyber fires,” or rather, actual fires in enemy hardware, using cyber attacks. This new kind of cyber warfare will be markedly distinct from current capabilities in that it can be an actual threat to human life. Even the infamous Stuxnet could only harm centrifuges.

This programme is just one component of the Pentagon’s shift in cyber strategy. In the Pentagon’s newly-published Law of War manual a whole chapter is devoted to cyber warfare. Under the new guidelines, cyber attacks would be sanctioned even if “it is certain that civilians would be killed or injured — so long as the reasonably anticipated collateral damage isn’t excessive in relation to what you expect to gain militarily,” said retired Major General Charles J. Dunlap, executive director of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security.

“These are essentially the same rules as for attacks employing traditional bombs or bullets,” he added.

Cyber warfare is no longer the new frontier. China, Russia, Iran and others engage in cyber attacks on the West in a consistent manner, and we can only guess at the extent of operations conducted by Western allies. US Cyber Command was created in 2009 for just this purpose. It is now recruiting 6,200 specialists for cyber warfare teams positioned around the globe.

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