So, with OBL offed and Al Qaida effectively beheaded (as if it hadn’t already been waning considerably in its ability to achieve anything of note), the defence budget of the US needs a new enemy to justify its continued expansion. But no one with sense would start an old-school land war these days (missions of liberation and the insurgencies they provoke are an entirely different category, of course), so what is there that merits a bit of saber-rattling?
“People we don’t like who also have nukes or are trying to get them” is a hardy perennial, but most of them have gathered enough friends (or mutual enemies-of-their-enemy) that it’s getting hard to make anyone care other than the lapdog allies over on Airstrip One. Something current, scary and poorly-understood would be ideal… something like the nebulous and poorly-defined notion of “cyberwarfare”, perhaps?
The Pentagon’s first formal cyber strategy, unclassified portions of which are expected to become public next month, represents an early attempt to grapple with a changing world in which a hacker could pose as significant a threat to U.S. nuclear reactors, subways or pipelines as a hostile country’s military.
In part, the Pentagon intends its plan as a warning to potential adversaries of the consequences of attacking the U.S. in this way. “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks,” said a military official.
Recent attacks on the Pentagon’s own systems—as well as the sabotaging of Iran’s nuclear program via the Stuxnet computer worm—have given new urgency to U.S. efforts to develop a more formalized approach to cyber attacks. A key moment occurred in 2008, when at least one U.S. military computer system was penetrated. This weekend Lockheed Martin, a major military contractor, acknowledged that it had been the victim of an infiltration, while playing down its impact.
The report will also spark a debate over a range of sensitive issues the Pentagon left unaddressed, including whether the U.S. can ever be certain about an attack’s origin, and how to define when computer sabotage is serious enough to constitute an act of war. These questions have already been a topic of dispute within the military.
I expect that open-endedness is a feature rather than a bug, because it offers a great opportunity to put the great economic enemy in the frame: if China’s consolidating the stranglehold on your economy which your own foreign and fiscal policies practically begged them to begin, it’s time to puff up your chest and get stern with them commies! Don’t take it from me, though – here’s Thomas P M Barnett with a plainly-titled post at TIME: “According to new Pentagon cyber strategy, state-of-war conditions now exist between the US and China“. Ouch.
In other words, if you, Country C, take down or just plain attack what we consider a crucial cyber network, we reserve the right to interpret that as an act of war justifying an immediately “equivalent” kinetic response (along with any cyber response, naturally). If this new strategy frightens you, then you just might be a rational actor.
Theoretically, this means if you, Country C, hack and disable the net of crucial US installation X, America can fire missiles at your equivalent civilian or military installation (C)X. Of course, by responding to your “act of war,” we are initiating our own war response, meaning we’d need presidential approval to start the fireworks. But the key point is, by hacking something that we consider to be national security-sensitive, you leave yourself open to a state-of-war response from the United States at the time of its choosing, so be forewarned.
Which facilities fall into this “eye for an eye (or ear or . . .)” category? Naturally, America shouldn’t say, so as to keep Country C in the dark (the essence of deterrence), but putting us in the dark (take-down of an electric grid) is an obvious one cited in the WSJ piece. Again, theoretically, almost anything can be described as crucial on some national security scale (e.g., hack Monsanto in just the right way and maybe you put US food security at risk), because the small damage that you, Country C, choose to create in our nets might easily cascade into something far larger, so virtually any hack emanating from your networks puts you at risk for a US war response.
(I wonder what the reaction would be to an equivalent policy elsewhere? Let’s say – strictly hypothetically, of course – that Big Nation-state A is revealed to have funded and built some sort of infrastructural sabotage virus with the strict intent of targetting the facilities of Nation-state B; will the US fully understand Nation-state B declaring war on A, or will that be considered a disproportionate act by a rogue state? Guess it’ll depend on which of the two the Pentagon is more interested in keeping on-side.)
Seriously, though: when a pro-intervention pro-globalisation type like Barnett thinks this is a bad play, it’s got to be a real dick move:
This is an destabilizing step sideways in our security relationship with China: Beijing is being warned that its current and ongoing behavior can – at any time – be loosely interpreted as an act of war. Whatever situations or crises ensue, that handy rationale is now always sitting in the Pentagon’s back pocket, because I guarantee you, whenever big-war enthusiasts want to play that card, the Defense Department will be able to muster – at a moment’s notice – a long list of Chinese hacking attacks over the previous X hours/days/weeks/months. So when the President asks, “Do we have evidence that the Chinese are targeting us at this time for cyber-sabotage?” The answer will always be yes.
Bottom line? Strangelove has re-entered the Building.
That last line implies Strangelove ever left the building; I suspect he’s been stored in boardroom cupboards against the appropriate moment.
Deliberate or otherwise, the daftest thing here is that the Pentagon can grok that “cyberwarfare” is a threat, but doesn’t seem to entirely grok the fact that cyberwarfare doesn’t need to be a function of nation-state level decision-making. Indeed, the real threat is from non-nation-state actors, wherever they may be based. NATO seems wise to this, though, with the General Rapporteur issuing dire warnings to Anonymous, Wikileaks and their ilk:
Describing the rise of the group from its beginnings on internet picture message board 4chan, via campaigns against the Church of Scientology and, more recently, in support of whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, the report continues: “Today, the ad hoc international group of hackers and activists is said to have thousands of operatives and has no set rules or membership.”
The report goes on to lay out a stark warning to the group’s nameless participants:
“It remains to be seen how much time Anonymous has for pursuing such paths. The longer these attacks persist the more likely countermeasures will be developed, implemented, the groups will be infiltrated and perpetrators persecuted.”
Well, good luck with that, folks. If you thought trying to tame countries full of warring factions whose only common ground was a desire to get shot of the meddling infidels was no picnic, declaring war on the fluid alliances and ad-hocracies of the intertubes is going to be a long and frustrating game of whack-a-mole which, I fully suspect, you have no chance of winning. After all, Anonymous doesn’t have anything you can aim a missile at, does it?
4 thoughts on “Grasping around for a new enemy: Pentagon redefines hacking as act of warfare”
An interesting POV but probably wrong. I see this more as a ‘shot across the bow’ for China, which is already involved in cyber warfare against most of the Western democracies. Of course, it’s difficult to accept that such a major player has got you in its sites, being much more comfortable to believe that the world is a place of honesty, justice and cooperation. Except that it isn’t.
Acknowledging you have enemies is wise. Wiser still, perhaps, might be to ask why exactly they have it in for you, and maybe address the problem. 🙂
With a more speculative sci-fi angle, the current elite henchman/thug or action hero is ex Navy Seal (or pick your preferred special forces group). What does it look like when the next generation of hacker / counter-hacker is ex-military instead of script-kiddies?
There’s no doubt that a large-scale cyber attack could damage a country as much as a direct military attack on a port, or airport, if not more so. And throughout human history, the definition of Act of War has been ‘whatever we say it is, whenever we need it to be’. And thus we live in a world where a trade blockade provokes retaliation (Japan, 1941) while a missile attack on a large city might not (Israel, first Gulf War, 1991).
Regardless of the syntax used, potential audiences for the message and war-talk, I’d be concerned if the Pentagon wasn’t considering how it should respond to such a threat.
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