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Costs of American Cyber Superiority

Aug 06 , 2013
  • Greg Austin

    Professorial Fellow at the EastWest Institute

The United States is racing for the technological frontier in military and intelligence uses of cyber space. It is ahead of all others, and has mobilized massive non-military assets and private contractors in that effort. This constellation of private sector opportunity and deliberate government policy has been aptly labeled in recent months and years by so many credible observers (in The Economist, The Financial Times and the MIT Technology Review) as the cyber industrial complex.

The United States is now in the unusual situation where the head of a spy agency (NSA) also runs a major military unified command (Cyber Command). This is probably an unprecedented alignment of Praetorian political power in any major democracy in modern political history. This allocation of such political weight to one military commander is of course for the United States to decide and is a legitimate course of action. But it has consequences. The Snowden case hints at some of the blow-back effects now visible in public. But there are others, less visible.

The NSA Prism program exists because it is technologically possible and there have been no effective restraints on its international targeting. This lack of restraint is especially important because the command and control of strategic nuclear weapons is a potential target both of cyber espionage and offensive cyber operations. The argument here is not to suggest a similarity between the weapons themselves, but to identify correctly the very close relationship between cyber operations and nuclear weapons planning. Thus the lack of restraint in cyber weapons might arguably affect (destabilize) pre-existing agreements that constrain nuclear weapons deployment and possible use.

The cyber superiority of the United States, while legal and understandable, is now a cause of strategic instability between nuclear armed powers. This is similar to the situation that persisted with nuclear weapons themselves until 1969 when the USSR first proposed an end of the race for the technological frontier of potential planetary devastation. After achieving initial capability, the U.S. nuclear missile build up was not a rational military response to each step increase in Soviet military capability. It was a race for the technological frontier – by both sides – with insufficient recognition of the consequences. This conclusion was borne out by a remarkable Top Secret study commissioned in 1974 by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Dr James Schlesinger. By the time it was completed and submitted in 1981, it assessed that the nuclear arms build-up by both sides was driven – not by a supposed tit for tat escalation in capability of deployed military systems – but rather by an unconstrained race for the technological limits of each side’s military potential and by its own military doctrinal preferences. The decisions of each side were not for the most part, according to this now declassified study, a direct response to particular systems that the other side was building.

In 1969, the USSR acted first to propose an end to the race for the technological frontier of nuclear weapons because it knew it was losing the contest and because it knew there was political sentiment in the United States and in its Allied countries that supported limitations on the unbridled nuclear fetish.

As we ponder the American cyber industrial complex of today, we see a similar constellation of opposition to its power emerging. This constellation includes not just the political rivals who see they are losing in cyber space (China and Russia), but nervous allies who see themselves as the likely biggest victims of the American race for cyber superiority, and loyal American military commanders who can see the risks and dangers of that quest.

It is time for the United States to take stock of the collateral damage that its quest for cyber military power, including its understandable quest for intelligence superiority over the terrorist enemy, has caused amongst its allies. The loss has not yet been seen at the high political level among allies, in spite of several pro forma requests for information from countries such as Germany. The loss of U.S. credibility has happened more at the popular level. Around the world, once loyal supporters of the United States in its war on terrorism had a reasonable expectation to be treated as faithful allies. They had the expectation, perhaps naïve, that privacy was a value the Americans shared with them. They did not expect to be subject to such a crude distinction (“you are all non-Americans now”). They did not want to know that their entire personal lives in cyber space are now recoverable – should someone so decide – by the running of a bit of software in the NSA. After the Prism revelations, so many of these foreign citizens with an internationalist persuasion and solidarity for the United States now feel a little betrayed.

Yet, in the long run, the most influential voice to end the American quest for cyber military superiority may come from its own armed forces. There are military figures in the United States who have had responsibility for nuclear weapons command and control systems and who, in private, counsel caution. They advocate the need to abandon the quest for cyber dominance and pursue a strategy of “mutual security” in cyber space – though that has yet to be defined. They cite military exercises where the Blue team gets little or no warning of Red team disruptive cyber attack on systems that might affect critical nuclear command and control or wider war mobilization functions. Strategic nuclear stability may be at risk because of uncertainty about innovations in cyber attack capability. This question is worth much more attention.

U.S. national security strategy in cyber space needs to be brought under stronger civilian oversight and subject to more rigorous public scrutiny. The focus on Chinese cyber espionage has totally preempted proper debate about American cyber military power. Most in the United States Congress have lined up to condemn Snowden. That is understandable. But where are the critical voices looking at the bigger picture of strategic instability in cyberspace that existed before Snowden and has now been aggravated because of him? The Russian and Chinese rejections of reasonable U.S. demands for Snowden’s extradition may be every bit as reasonable given their anxiety about unconstrained American cyber superiority.

Greg Austin is director of policy innovation at the EastWest Institute.

This article was originally published by EastWest Institute

About Greg Austin

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