Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently turned what had been a simmering debate over the future of the U.S. military into a full-fledged conflagration. In a series of speeches he questioned both the long-term viability and the affordability of the current force structure. He noted the operational and resource problems associated with placing ever greater emphasis on smaller and smaller numbers of increasingly costly platforms. Unlike some critics of the military who simply want to slash the defense budget or who believe that the danger of large-scale conflicts no longer exists, Secretary Gates wants to ensure that the military is capable of meeting the full range of future threats. To do that, he argues, requires finding the money to begin shifting to investments in the capabilities needed for the battlefields of the future. This is an argument that others, notably the analysts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, have been making for a while. Put simply, the argument is in favor of longer-range over shorter-range, of unmanned over manned, and of more and smaller platforms networked together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is the wrong debate. It focuses on things, be they platforms or weapons systems. The real debate should be about the rising threat of cyber attack on both military and civilian networks and its implications for everything the U.S. military does. A recent report by a panel of NATO experts warned that the next attack on the Alliance “may well come down a fibre-optic cable.” NATO is concerned that cyber attacks in 2007 on Estonian government and civilian sites and in 2009 against Georgia are but harbingers of things to come.
It makes no sense to invest in swarms of small, largely unmanned combatants that rely on computer systems and electronic networks to be effective if cyber attacks (or electro-magnetic pulse weapons, for that matter) upset computers and take down the networks. If so, why focus on the kinetic vulnerability of U.S. platforms if cyber attacks will dominate in future warfare? Why worry about China’s development of precision strike systems and associated ISR and targeting networks if U.S. cyber attacks can take down their capability to threaten U.S. bases and platforms? Current assessments of the cyber threat to U.S. networks and systems, both government and private, are rather grim. It is all the U.S. government can do to protect its own cyber infrastructure. Private networks, those that control virtually all commercial activity in the U.S., remain extremely vulnerable.
The larger question is whether cyber attack will dramatically, even fundamentally, change the future of warfare. The NATO report suggested that the Alliance might have to respond with military force to a future cyber attack. This raises all sorts of issues of attribution, proportionality, effectiveness and consequences. More broadly, will cyber war become the equivalent of the strategic bombardment or submarine warfare campaigns of World War Two? Or will cyber attacks so compromise kinetic operations as to make large-scale conventional conflict with advanced weapons systems impossible? If cyber is to warfare in the 21st Century what the internal combustion engine was to warfare in the 20th Century, we should be focused on that reality and not be arguing about the size of future platforms.
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