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A recent study conducted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reveals that the United States is the dominant and leading cyber power in the world. A recently published report entitled, “Cyber Capabilities and National Power: A Net Assessment”, is a comprehensive and contemporary qualitative assessment of 15 countries’ cyber power, as well as a new qualitative framework for understanding how to rank global state cyber capacity. This research is meant to aid national decision-making by highlighting the cyber capacities that have the biggest impact on national power, for example, governments and significant enterprises can use this data to calculate strategic risk and make strategic investment decisions.

IISS Senior Fellow for Cyber, Space and Future Conflict Dr. Greg Austin who is also an advisory board member of Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, commented: “China has made significant progress in bolstering its capabilities since 2014, but nowhere near enough to close the gap with the US. The main reason is the relative standing of the two nations’ digital economies, where the US remains far advanced despite China’s digital progress.” 

Austin added: “The US has also been building its dominance in cyberspace since the mid-1990s. Its power is amplified by highly sophisticated intelligence-sharing networks, including with the “Five Eyes” partners and other cyber-capable allies such as France and Israel. The US cannot be complacent about its leading position, however, and how it grapples with the growing strength of China’s digital economy will be decisive for the future balance of cyber power.”

This report provides a qualitative assessment of national cyber power along seven dimensions, analyzing the wider cyber ecosystem for each country, including how it intersects with international security, economic competition, and military affairs. Measures examined include the strength of a state’s digital economy, the capability of its cyber intelligence agencies, and the maturity of a state’s intelligence and security ecosystem.

The authors then use these metrics to categories the 15 states studied into three tiers of capability:

Tier One: World-leading strengths in all categories — United States

Tier Two: World-leading strengths in some of the categories — Australia; Canada; China; France; Israel; Russia; United Kingdom

Tier Three: Strengths or potential strengths in some categories but significant weaknesses in others — India; Indonesia; Iran; Japan; Malaysia; North Korea; Vietnam

Despite fears that democratic nations’ cyber capabilities may be falling behind authoritarian rivals such as China and Russia, the 174-page study finds that advanced industrial economies often have significant cyber advantages. The ability to attract venture capital and tech skills allow digital businesses to flourish, for instance – factors that in turn are vital for the development of national cyber power. 

Austin continued: “Authoritarian states studied, such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, fare worse in relative terms, despite often significant state-led investments. Each often practices forms of tech isolation and limits dependency on foreign technology, such as US-made microchips and operating systems. This push for digital sovereignty, in turn, stems the inward flow of capital and talent, and thus cyber capability.”

“Liberal democracies, on the other hand, see national innovation driven by the private sector and academia. The result is vibrant, multi-billion-dollar cyber-security industries, as well as large investments in state-of-the-art security by the internet service providers themselves.”, Austin further added.

The 15 studies are a window in time: each state’s national dynamics will change over time, and cyber plans and initiatives will encounter challenges from a variety of factors including the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, most policies and developments in capabilities are likely to persist for any state.

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