This week the Director of National Intelligence, General James R. Clapper, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that cyber attacks are the biggest security challenge the nation faces. A Defense News poll of national leaders found that sentiment is widely shared among political elites. Unfortunately, the sentiment is wrong. Cyber is a serious and growing threat, but it doesn’t begin to approach the existential danger presented by thousands of Russian and Chinese nuclear warheads aimed at America.
The fact that intelligence experts and political leaders don’t understand this says a lot about how fashion influences threat assessments. We’ve been living with the nuclear threat for six decades, and have grown accustomed to it. So the fact that we can’t stop a crazy or accident-prone Russian leader from one day laying waste to America no longer troubles us the way it once did. “What possible reason could the Russians (or the Chinese) have for launching a nuclear strike,” we reason, “when our retaliation would make that act suicidal?”
The problem with this formulation is that every leader isn’t rational. Even if they were, people make mistakes. And as we gradually reduce the size and diversity of our strategic arsenal, it becomes easier to imagine scenarios in which America might be disarmed in a surprise attack — or at least has its capabilities so degraded that an aggressor no longer views retaliation as inevitable. Stranger things have happened in recent history. What were Japanese leaders thinking when they bombed Pearl Harbor? Whatever it was, they weren’t thinking clearly.
The paradox of cyber-insecurity is that because nothing really catastrophic has happened so far, we are free to imagine the most fanciful and fantastic developments. What if the Chinese shut down the electric grid? What if Russians paralyze our financial system? What if terrorists use the internet to steal plans for making biological weapons? Those concerns are worth pondering, but there are concrete steps already being taken to mitigate the danger. Other than a handful of interceptors on the West Coast and at sea, we have few options for blunting a major nuclear attack.
And it looks like things are going to stay that way. Sure, we could launch on warning if we thought a nuclear strike was imminent, attempting to destroy an aggressor’s forces before they could be used. But would we really trust our intelligence enough to make the first move in World War Three? Not likely. And could we even find Russian or Chinese nuclear systems deployed at sea or on mobile land-based launchers? Again, not likely. So unlike in the case of a cyber attacks, we are basically defenseless if a large-scale nuclear attack were to occur.
Just one such weapon could kill more Americans than all of our wars combined, and our adversaries have thousands of warheads. Yet somehow we have convinced ourselves that cyber attacks and rag-tag bands of terrorists are a bigger danger. That’s one reason why discipline seems to be breaking down at our missile silos: as the New York Times and other papers have been reporting this week, launch officers think their mission doesn’t matter anymore, because nobody’s going to start a nuclear war.
That attitude, which seems to have infected the intelligence community and political elites, may signal that the danger of nuclear war is actually growing. Because when you stop thinking seriously about the one threat that could destroy America in the next half-hour, you start making miscalculations — and so do your enemies.
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