A recent report by the Washington Post claims that the Intelligence Community (IC) is investigating the potential for Vladimir Putin's Russia to conduct covert and overt information influence and cyber attack operations against the United States in order to sow national and transnational distrust in American leadership. I tend to not indulge hypothetical doomsday proclamation, but the scenario does create an interesting context in which to examine the parallels between the rise of aerospace in the mid-1900s with the rise of cyberspace in the early 2000s.
It's worth noting that the scenario as a whole (the section entitled THE ESCALATION OF CONFLICT) is based on a series of events that are entirely fictitious, even while the underlying themes and context in which they could occur are rooted in historical precedent that we'll briefly introduce where appropriate.
Just as the doctrine for the budding Army Air Corps (and early US Air Force) was subordinate to the US Army, we're finding that cyber doctrine is also subordinate to its parent organization, the US Air Force. The modernization of these lessons, should illustrate the increased potential for cyberspace to be exploited by non-state actors and falsely attributed to adversary states with the increased potential for armed conflict.
ATTRIBUTION, repudiation, and insurgency
As I mentioned at earlier, a recent report by the Washington Post claims that the IC is investigating the possibility of Russian influence in American politics through cyber attacks, propaganda, and disinformation. While this makes for a fantastic headline, it doesn't really tell us anything. After all, it's the IC's job to investigate all sorts of vulnerabilities to American national security, regardless of the likelihood of these vulnerabilities being exploited.
However, even though the source goes on to mention that the IC lacks any definitive proof, the existence of the investigation does give us an interesting thought experiment. US interests are routinely being barraged by cyber attacks, like the Sony hack by North Korea in 2014, that are nominally ignored by the US government apparatus and IC alike. However, there are two key differences between an attack at the electoral system: First, it is an attack that undermines our ability to practice democracy; and second, it undermines our ability to project military, political, and technological power throughout the rest of the world.
These are two important distinctions that work in tandem with one another to undermine not only the Office of the President, but also our ability to convince international partners (Turkey, NATO, The Caucus States) that we will be able to provide military, economic, or technological support in exchange for whatever governments exchange behind closed doors. This may seem like a minor issue at first glance, but can have ramifications when we consider how many strategic deterrents we have forward deployed to these partner nations (e.g. Turkey), and how the removal of these assets can significantly bolster Russian geopolitical holdings in that region.
Also consider how most warfare is conducted in the post-Cold War Era. Rather than focusing on large state actors battling with one another, most conflict is mired in ambiguity and conducted through the use of non-state actors conducting operations on the behalf of a much larger country.
While it's difficult to determine which state is backing these non-state actors, ultimately this information can be determined through identifying equipment, analyzing tactics employed, or through confessions of captured insurgents. With Cyber warfare, this isn't necessarily the case; through tools like The Onion Router, cyber actors can mask themselves through numerous layers of obfuscation making it difficult to track them down to a country of origin and even harder to determine their motivations, funding, and purpose.
Consider the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, when the United States backed Al Qaeda in order to prevent outright conflict with the Soviet Union. Russia knew that the United States was backing Al Qaeda and took political and military measures to react to this information in an attempt to increase the likelihood of their success in the country. How might that conflict have played out if it were possible for Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) to influence the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan without it being attributable to the United States?
That is the situation in which we find ourselves. Any activist or malcontent can attack a foreign country in order to further their cause. Most of these attacks will be wildly unsuccessful for a myriad of reasons, but how many will succeed and how will that outcome play out? The Office of Personnel Management was recently hacked by a Chinese company, and while reporters were quick to blame "China" it's still not certain how much of the attack was supported by the Chinese government, how much of that information China bought off the black market after the fact, or if China benefited from the attack at all.
Certainly though, few changes were made to US foreign policy to address the perceived attack by Chinese actors. How long will these sort of cyber attacks continue before one country starts blaming another for their citizen's behavior? When will we inevitably run into a Senator or Congressmen who stops looking into the details of a cyber or terrorist attack and immediately moves to retaliate against a long standing adversary?
THE ESCALATION OF CONFLICT
Before we can have an "Accidental World War" we need to first have an "Accidental War," and the slideshow below is going to introduce one hypothetical way in which we can find ourselves in war against our better judgment, intentions, and capabilities.
At first glance, the idea that an unsafe intercept, a radar lock-on, or the accidental downing of an adversarial aircraft being the catalyst for a major world war seems a little silly. However, consider that (a) as recently as December 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet for a miscommunication on where the jet was in relation to Turkish airspace, (b) in a similar fashion the Swiss army recently invaded Liechtenstein, and (c) fratricide within one's country is still a major issue world wide.
In this scenario of conflict, the least speculative fact is this: Once that decision to wage war between the US and Russia was made, numerous mutual defense treaties would be enacted (a la WWI), and a third world war is fairly likely. The main difference between this war, and the first two, is the number of colonial powers is significantly reduced so the introduction of neutral, but fairly powerful, states (e.g. India) remain fairly ambiguous in their role in this conflict.
These states may not join in the actual US-Russian conflict, but may take that opportunity to resolve other regional disputes. For example, China may not decide to directly support Russia in a conflict against the United States instead choosing to exploit NATO's European focus by annexing numerous islands in the South China Sea.
This annexation would likely caused armed conflict between China, Vietnam, The Philippines, and/or Malaysia in a much smaller but incredibly prolific maritime war that would likely result in US intervention, leading the US into two major transnational conflicts that would have the same impact on US citizens as if the US were in a third world war.
What war would look like
As I outlined in the first section, ATTRIBUTION, REPUDIATION, AND INSURGENCY, Modern warfare is conducted predominantly through proxy wars utilizing non-state actors and economic sanctions, but these missions are categorized as "Unconventional Warfare" and are primarily the responsibility of Special Operations Forces, not large standing armies, navys, or air forces. These traditional components are built for state on state violence, and they've been quietly changing during the post-Cold War Era while the rest of the world has been preoccupied with the War on Terror.
Traditional Warfare has always been won by economics, technology, and logistics. In order to ensure that friendly forces have the economic, technological, and logistical advantage, each nation state abides by their own Principles of War, upon which they build their doctrine and establish their military's individual requirements, capabilities, and intent. Understanding these principles is required in order to imagine how this theoretical, hypothetical, and tragic world war might be fought. The United States has nine such principles:
- Economy of Force
- Unity of Command
While all of these are important, the post-Cold War Era saw the largest change in Mass, Economy of Force, and Maneuver; predominantly through the utilization of stealth aircraft and the employment of the Rumsfeld Doctrine. Of particular note, the desire of numerous nations' air forces to acquire stealth aircraft in recent years likely signals a global paradigm shift from large military conflicts to smaller forces (e.g. Economy of Force) that aim to mass (e.g. Mass) kinetic energy (e.g. drop bombs) in previously protected places without the adversary ever noticing.
This is a significant shift as both the first and second world wars were waged based on the total war concept. Under this concept of warfare, civilian infrastructure was deemed a valid military target, and air forces carpet bombed population centers in a war of attrition, in an attempt to destroy the will of the population to wage war.
Under this new paradigm of utilizing stealth aircraft, and smaller expeditionary forces (see: Rumsfeld Doctrine), military targets will have greater specificity and military equipment will have greater demands. One way to reduce these demands is through stealth technology: Rather than amassing hundreds of bombers in an attempt to over saturate enemy air defense artillery (ADA), or anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), stealth fighters can strike deep into enemy territory and return to base before air surveillance radar ever knows they were there.
This changes the war from one of manpower attrition to one of economic or technological attrition. Which leads me to my final point; the other key way to reduce the demands on military equipment and personnel is through the employment of cyber capabilities. While stealth aircraft represent a leap forward in aerospace technology, they cannot wage an economic war of attrition safely; they can certainly attack the logistics of the victory triad I introduced earlier, and they can theoretically destroy adversary equipment faster than the country's economy can replace them, but they cannot win a war on their own.
For that, we need another asset; one that doesn't require a large invading army that would hearken a return to the disastrous total war concept. That asset would need to be capable of striking deep into enemy territory undetected (Maneuver), able to be utilized without significant resources (Economy of Force), and able to significantly disrupt the economic, technological, or logistical systems of a country.
That asset is the exploitation of cyberspace. Ultimately, that realization is far more dangerous than the actual use of cyberspace for military operations. The fear that a country might use cyberspace to disrupt the global economy, and the realization that these actors may not be nation states themselves but rather some random activist or malcontent, could potentially lead to over militarization of the domain. The cyber equivalent of the accidental downing of a military aircraft, or the non-repudiated hacking of a government entity could one day be characterized as an act of war.
But, that's a topic for another post.