The Offense-Defense Balance in Cyberspace


  • Wade Huntley Senior Lecturer
  • Tim Shives Professor



Cyber Strategy, Offense-Defense Relationship, International Security, Cyber Threats, Offense-Defense Theory


The study of cyber strategy and its implications for international security has become increasingly crucial, necessitating an examination of the unique challenges posed by the dynamic and stealthy nature of the cyber domain. This paper addresses whether offensive or defensive strategies prevail in cyberspace, especially in light of evolving technological landscapes and debates over cyber threats. By applying offense-defense theory from international relations, the research explores the nuanced relationship between offensive and defensive operations in cyberspace. Despite prevalent views favoring offense dominance, recent skepticism questions the severity of cyber threats and suggests a possible overemphasis on offensive operations. This paper systematically examines the core concepts, findings, and operational variables of offense-defense theory, providing clarity to the conceptual debates surrounding cyber conflict. Recognizing the unique characteristics of the cyber domain, it urges a careful consideration of biases that may distort judgments about offense dominance. The evolving nature of cyberspace and its potential for redesign introduces caution and underscores the need for a nuanced understanding of the offense-defense balance. The preliminary assessment concludes that the question of whether offense or defense "dominates" in cyberspace is overly simplistic. Given the intricate interactions of cyber capabilities, other coercive means available to states, and the dynamic evolution of cyber technology, this question can only be answered within specific contextual and chronological boundaries. Within such conditions, the state of the offense-defense balance is crucial to tactical and operational decision-making. At the strategic policymaking level, the more coherent question is how cyber technologies are shifting the balance of advantages between offense and defense in the overall military posture of states. In essence, this paper provides valuable insights into the ongoing discourse on cyber strategy, theoretical frameworks, and nuanced analyses to inform policy and strategic decision-making in the face of evolving cyber threats.

Author Biographies

Wade Huntley, Senior Lecturer

Dr. Wade Huntley is a Senior Lecturer in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), with a joint appointment in the Cyber Academic Group. He holds a PhD in political science and has a background in computer science. Dr. Huntley’s research focuses on the strategic implications of emerging technologies, including cyber capabilities and artificial intelligence, and North Korean nuclear development. He has published extensively, including four edited volumes and over fifty scholarly articles.

Tim Shives, Professor

Dr. Timothy Shives is a Professor of Practice in the Information Sciences Department at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). He holds a Doctor of Education and an Education Specialist degree, an MS in Information Technology Management, an MBA, and an MA in National Security. Dr. Shives previously served as a Senior Advisor to Commander of Fleet Cyber Command/10th Fleet and as a civil servant at the Department of Defense, and as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, where he began his career as an attack helicopter pilot. His research interests include cyber operations, information warfare, and information technology management.