The weapons most important to our military future won’t seen be among the tanks, missiles, guns and soldiers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Trump’s planned tribute to authoritarian self-congratulation—unless, perhaps, someone hacks the electrical grid and kills the mic during his speech.
Cyber warfare is a big deal. And it’s here now. But, by its very nature, the public rarely learns about our adventures in cyberspace unless they are admirably successful (the Stuxnet worm to destroy Iranian nuclear centrifuges) or appalling failures (the hack of NSA spying tools, now worthless).
As recently as Vietnam, the goals of war between nations were primarily territorial—grab a lot of the other guy’s land with soldiers, guns, tanks, and airplanes and cause their populations to capitulate.
The days of wars involving guns have probably already more or less ended, at least when discussing wars between nuclear capable states.
The emergence of an open, global command and communications network (a.k.a., the Internet), on which we’ve come to depend for systems critical to our economic and physical survival has left us dangerously susceptible to being attacked from anywhere in the world by even third-tier hostile actors like North Korea. Keeping the lights on, trains and planes running, our water and gasoline pumped, stocking our food stores and streaming our entertainment requires the Internet, which is susceptible to attack.
Ask yourself how long you could manage without water, electricity, transportation, food and even entertainment. The answer is not long!
The grim reality of 21st century warfare is that infrastructure vital to our survival can be shut down by a computer virus just as well as by a bomb.
Publication of the NSA’s hacking toolkit was, perhaps counterintuitively, encouraging. While the release of these tools was certainly harmful to our security, it was the first public indication of how we had been positioning ourselves for the future of warfare. But many of the targets of cyber warfare are privately held (electrical grid) or otherwise beyond the practical reach of the federal government (municipal water systems) and we appear to be quite far from effectively securing these systems.
The NSA leak underscores another important point: our cyber strategy shares with our nuclear strategy a dependence on the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, the assurance that any attack on us would result in an equally devastating attack on our attacker, an approach that has been effective in preventing the use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki (thank God!).
While we must maintain our nuclear weapons and delivery systems, at least until such time as we can rid the world of existence of those risks, we should be diverting even more resources into this somewhat invisible problem.
Instead of generally bloviating about North Korea, we should warn them that we will/can shut them down and really starve them. And we should demonstrate that capability.
When our generals tell us today there is no realistic military option in dealing with Korea, they must be thinking primarily of guns, bombs (including perhaps nuclear), ammunition, and soldiers. Sadly, this is real evidence that our offensive cyber capabilities are NOT yet near ready. (And, also evidence that our nuclear defense systems are unreliable, and that a retaliatory strike by North Korea—whether our attack is traditional or cyber—could be very serious.)
Fiddling/meddling with our democratic election process is a very real problem; but, it is only a leading edge of the capability of cyber to undo the world. We must improve our defensive and offensive cyber capabilities or we may be in for big trouble all too soon.
It was only a few hundred years ago that gun powder made armed conflict “scalable.” Atomic energy took it to a new extreme in 1945. Cyber is the uranium of our times. Watch out!