The Future and Fears of Cyber-Warfare

Ted Bell's latest novel, Phantom, explores the world of cyber-warfare and the role of computers.  After finishing this insightful book, the reader might wonder what the real implications of cyber-warfare are.  American Thinker interviewed many experts to get their opinions on this increasingly important issue in a military context.

Bell wrote his book in part to inform the public about how computers will play an active and significant role in future warfare.  He feels that this issue is not on the public's radar and gets very little attention, yet "the next phase of warfare could be where your enemy can defeat you without direct engagement."

Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), who is currently running for the Senate and was a ranking member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, agrees.  He commented that cyber-attacks are a reality and that America appears to be extremely vulnerable.  "After a major cyber-attack, we will be talking about how we missed the signals and did not connect the dots." Could there ever be a "cyber-Pearl Harbor"?

According to John Arquilla (the person who coined the phrase "cyber-warfare"), an expert on the subject and also a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, this is a real possibility.  He noted that Howard Schmidt, the Cyber-Security Coordinator of the Obama Administration, "claimed there is no such thing as cyber war.  This makes my blood run cold since he is the presidential adviser.  We live in an era when many others are waging cyber-warfare around the world.  To have the presidential adviser claim that there is no such thing boggles the imagination.  This is not something that should be ignored since other nations are aggressively developing it.  We cannot be caught off-guard."

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden commented that the military domains of land, sea, air, and space now have an added member: the man-made cyber domain.  All interviewed feel that America is vulnerable to a cyber-attack -- although currently the objectives would be limited.  Colonel Martha McSally (R-AZ), a former pilot and senior leader in the Air Force, now running for Congress, believes that "although significant damage can be achieved, we would not be dead in the water.  It is not yet a show-stopper."

Vulnerability comes with new capabilities of highly complex technical systems.  Hayden warns that systems can be affected in two ways: cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare.  He explained to American Thinker, "cyber-espionage is computer network exploitation designed to steal information, whereas a computer network attack (cyber-war) is designed to delay, degrade, and disrupt information or take over a computer system to cause physical damage. This new type of warfare may be seen as a 'poor man's weapon' since the cost of entry is pretty low.  Yet if you want to do something pretty sophisticated against a target that is reasonably well-defended, you have to be very good at what you are doing.  For example, the Stuxnet virus used to attack Iran's nuclear computers caused physical disruption through cyber-means.  I said publicly that it was so complicated and so difficult to do that it had to have been done by a nation-state with all its resources."   

Currently, cyber-warfare is used to disrupt militaries and to cause confusion among the general public.  Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, cited how Russia in its 2008 war with Georgia attacked the cyber-infrastructure.  The Georgians were deterred from controlling and commanding their troops, and they had a disruption with their banks before the Russian troops ever crossed the border.  "This shows how nation-states, as a part of their military planning, will use cyber-attacks to prep the battlefield as a means to add chaos.  Iran is building a large cyber-army to possibly cause harm to our military or economic infrastructure.  I would argue they are developing capabilities in the cyber-front.  To defend this threat as well as others, we have created the cyber command."

In the future, how will cyber-warfare be conducted?  Congressman Rogers feels that most of today's solutions are defensive and argues that to have a good defense, there is the need for some kind of offensive capability.  Arquilla agrees and wants the U.S. to be more proactive and less reactive.  He would like to see infiltration of enemy systems, just as the code-breakers of WWII broke the Axis Powers systems.  Furthermore, he wants plane squadrons to consist of a combination of human pilots in the cockpit, human remote pilots, and AI pilots.  There is already naval testing of a drone that will be flown by onboard computers, which means that these machines will decide on their own when to shoot and when not to.  Arquilla points out the advantages: having a much greater capacity for turning and a greater tolerance of G-forces, for example, and the human limitations of fatigue, dehydration, error, and danger would be greatly reduced.

Colonel McSally agrees but also points out that there must be a balance between manpower and technology where technology complements humans but does not replace them.  For her, humans in the cockpit are essential since they bring a mindset that can make judgment calls, communicate with ground forces, and make assessments.  She tells the story of how "the computer handling bombing solutions completely failed on me.  I had to go back to a WWI level, using physics to make sure I was at the right airspeed, angle, altitude, and needed to consider the wind speed at the moment I opened fire.  There must be contingency planning."

To rely more and more on artificial intelligence or computers means that the military needs to make sure everything is secure from cyber-attacks.  McSally regards unmanned air vehicles flown through a satellite link as vulnerable.  Hayden agrees that enemies will be able to override highly complex technical systems, especially when they are connected to the internet.  He also sees the need for a balance between technology and manpower and would be uncomfortable in having a drone completely control the action.  "I have done this enough over the years to know that you can never determine all the pre-determined conditions.  I am uncomfortable with automating the decision-making."

Lewis Shepherd, general manager and director of the Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, regards America's current systems as machines that can make intellectual decisions based upon the data.  He agrees with the others and does not see them replacing humans anytime soon, since "all the possible outcomes can never be predicted.  If the parameter changes slightly, humans can react accordingly.  You may think you have programmed all the possibilities, but there is always the unforeseen, the unpredictable variable.  My brother, a former Air Force pilot, always emphasized that a machine cannot react like a human."

Arquilla concludes, "We should be afraid, be very afraid.  We live in a time when our military, which is very much empowered by advanced information technology, is also imperiled by its infiltration of enemies.  There are and will be situations where automated systems will be taken over."  That is what Ted Bell tries to point out in his novel Phantom: how America's cyber-network is vulnerable, causing a constant battle to try to protect these systems from penetration.  As Congressman Rogers warns, "as we get better at it, unfortunately, so does the rest of the world."