Virtual War
Published on: October 17, 2011
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  • Anthony

    WRM, the idea of increasing interpenetration of the virtual and real worlds succumbing to world-wide cyber war is chilling. What fundamental efforts must U.S. employ to both hinder and stay on top of negative cyber-campaigns? Further, as you imply, the implications are potentially destabilizing – commercially, militarily, environmentally, and governmentally. So, mitigating degradation of our cyber-technological capabilities is of national import and requires an informed and educated citizenry as a first priority in our development of a “Grand Strategy.”

    WRM, reading your exposition I come away with the thought that technological competition is function of 21st century living. Consequently, Americans should be forever stimulating each other to increase excercise of their abilities to use cutting edge cyber technology so as not to stay in same place (as advised by Red Queen).

    Finally as regards software patch for Original Sin, John Stuart Mill provides direction: “human beings owe to each other help to distinquish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter” – just some human advice in an age of far reaching changes WRM.

  • Luke Lea

    “A revolution that made aircraft carriers obsolete would hurt us worse than any other country simply because we have made very large investments in our carrier fleet and would have to start from scratch to build whatever comes next. ”

    I thought that was one of the things guided missiles were for. If we use our carrier fleets to try to control the shipping lanes in the South China Sea, all within a few hundred miles of the Chinese mainland, those carriers are just sitting ducks.

    So simple-minded me, armchair strategist of the rankest kind, thinks subs are the key to the future security of — in particular — Japan.

    But not even subs would be enough to defend Taiwan if China is absolutely determined to re-assert its authority.. It’s too close to shore. So in the event of severe economic unrest in China — which is hardly unthinkable –re-taking Taiwan would seem to be the obvious first choice of a frightened regime hoping to re-channel popular discontent. Unfortunately, the manpower requirements are quite low by Chinese standards. They will look elsewhere.

    Is this just a bad dream?

  • Luke Lea

    “If the paradox of cyberwar teaches us anything, it should teach us that Whig history is flawed.”

    Oh come on now Walter. The real Whigs never believed progress is steady or that there would never be setbacks. They knew their own history.

    The so-called “Whig interpretation of history” is just a facile cartoon drawn by an American no less. Witness all the economic and political progress made in the last century despite two World Wars.

  • Jim.

    Honestly, I’d be surprised if our military could be caught without countermeasures to any advances in cyber-technology that we might see in the near future. Certainly not the ones that Mead names in this essay.

    The *really* dangerous implications of cyber-warfare are almost all on the civilian side. The military’s logistical infrastructure is to a great extent hardened against these attacks. Our civilian infrastructure isn’t.

    I’m certainly not going to wish that tragedies happen simply for the sake of avoiding other tragedies; but if we end up with some near-misses, that might be good for us in terms of waking people up to the dangers of advanced technology in malicious hands.

    When that happens, expect the defensive technologies to be technologies already seen and being currently developed in the Department of Defense.

  • WOW. Pretty breathtaking overall – with some great metaphors along the way. Have some thoughts, but these will have to wait a bit before I get my second wind. Assuming I do.

  • Kenny

    Very timely posting by Via Meadia.

  • Keith McLennan

    One for the interns: “Dreadnought” is spelt with an “o”, not an “a”. A typo shows that the era of the battleship is not only over, but practically forgotten. There was a time when “dreadnought” was as familiar a word as Predator is today!

  • Kenny

    “But not even subs would be enough to defend Taiwan if China is absolutely determined to re-assert its authority.”

    Some facts. With enough will, the U.S. could defend Taiwan rather easily. That’s because the U.S. literally, and in every sense of the term, has first strike capability.

    The U.S. has more than enough power to wipe of any and all of Chinese nuclear weapons with little to no threat of retaliation. Fact.

    And the day that America elects leaders who will speak of such, that’s the day the Chinese sit down and start behaving themselves.

  • As someone who works in Cybersecurity, I’d say this is alarmist. It isn’t all wrong – the possibility that the Internet will end up disabling the US’s power is ever present, however I do believe that on the whole it is likely to be overly pessimistic. Why? because the philosophy behind the Internet and related movements such as Open Source software are closely aligned with the political philosophy of the US and indeed in particular the philosohpy of self-reliance and neighborly support that underpins the Tea Party and similar. At the end of the day it is almost impossible to control the Internet effectively and that means that big dictatorial states are at a disadvantage.

    The Internet & related technologies mean that now anyone with a $1000 of equipment can develop something useful to millions and then distribute it to them. Moreover the benefits of Metcalf’s law (networks are exponentially better with more members) mean that an open Internet society will always be stronger than a closed limited one.

    It is plausible to believe that a Cyber attack could harm part of the American infrastructure (after all simple mistakes by techs can cause power outages in S California for a day) but on the whole the US is a decentralized economy and polity so an attack is unlikely to be fatal. On the other hand most of the US’s obvious rivals are far more centralized and thus far more likely to be vulnerable to the sort of attack that wipes out their entire infrastructure are once.

    Moreover the US has companies such as the one I work for that are actively addressing the threats and stopping them in ways that do not affect the vital electronic communications that are needed to keep everything working. The main thing we need is publicity so that the average small business, school district or whatever is aware of the potential threat and takes action to stop it. Right now most enterprise networks have bots in them communicating back to their masters (one of our customers found his network printers talking to China) but it is relatively easy and inexpensive to block these holes and clean up the junk. For the most part the junk is criminal and it is not impossible that we will thank the crooks for warning us of the vulnerabilities that could also be used by actual enemies.

  • Doubter

    I find this to be a little over the top. In terms of trade the Internet is a great equalizer allowing even overseas operations to be immediate providers of consumer goods. Of course domestic startups can take advantage of that as well. It is a little harder to replicate that advantage militarily.

    The Serbian experience is a very good example of that. They sent spam, we sent warplanes which massively ripped apart their infrastructure.

    Disrupting or listening in on enemy communications in any war is a major advantage for a combatant. The combatant still has to degrade the enemy’s capability fast enough and thoroughly enough to beat whatever degradation of forces it is suffering through warfare.

    The Internet is also a cooperative enterprise. Bring it down sufficiently and you cause the same damage to your own side.

    The truth of the matter is that the underlying economics will determine the strength of nations and we need to remain strong in the economic realm. The rest is really a nuisance.

  • Great comments so far. All the same, it seems to me Prof Mead is talking not just about the always upgradable capabilities of systems, but about the unvarying propensities of individual human beings throughout history – individuals at EVERY level of social status, charisma, intelligence, rationality and enterprise (e.g., even entrepreneurs and technocrats are not ALWAYS saints). The talented and ambitious are never completely immune to the lust for power and recognition – even when that lust is mediated through something as impersonal and collective as a corporation or a not-for-profit. And the rest of us are never completely resistant to being intimidated by the powerful and recognized – even when we’d much rather buy from or patronize somebody else (“But WHICH? They’re all alike!”). In short, even the smartest of us can SOMETIMES be made to feel like an idiot, and then persuaded by the “maker” to act – at least for a time – against our rational self-interest (Concerned friend: “WHAT? Haven’t you switched carriers YET?”).

    “If the paradox of cyberwar teaches us anything, it should teach us that Whig history is flawed. British Enlightenment thought, still the foundation of American political ideology, is both optimistic and deterministic. It believes that the advance of technology, science and education will create a peaceful and democratic world. Democratic peace theory and virtually all forms of progressive and liberal international thought assume the inevitable triumph of free markets, free government and free science in a peaceful liberal world system.”

    Hopefully, too – though I have my doubts – the paradox of cyberwar will “put paid” to a certain strand of Enlightenment-rooted American thinking, one that likes to call itself “isolationist.” A strand which, historically, has been SO intent upon the triumph of free markets in a peaceful world system (albeit with plenty of virile dog-eat-dog on the “domestic” and economic fronts), that it’s been willing to kowtow to almost any global-power-hungry, dog-eat-dog tyrant in order to get it. And yes, I believe this will STILL be a globe of plentiful opportunity for tyrants, in every domain and walk of life: they’re just going to have to be shrewder, more charismatic, more ruthless (we really DON’T admire nice people nowadays), and more technophile – if not techno-fanatic.

    “The so-called ‘Whig interpretation of history’ is just a facile cartoon drawn by an American no less. Witness all the economic and political progress made in the last century despite two World Wars.”

    Amen. Immense progress WAS made in the last century. And I wonder if we’d have been anywhere near as successful had we been more “Whiggish.” So far as we erred at all, thank God – at least during the mid-decades (everything seems to have changed by ’65) – it was on the opposite, “Tory” side of that coin. And that in turn made us Westerners more cautious, vigilant and “conservative” – and so less hysterically optimistic all around. Interesting too, as I recall, the more confident “Whigs” of the ’30s and ’40s (e.g., many British “Independent Labour” and other socialists, both radical and democratic, plus Liberals like Lord Lothian and Lloyd George, as well as American isolationists of every stripe) tended to view fascism more as a storm to be weathered than as a virus to be withstood. Not EVERY sort of “fascist” was viewed so optimistically, of course – Salazar and Franco remained anathema to anyone left of center – but definitely the more “progressive” forms of fascism (i.e., the more explicitly post-Christian, anti-conservative varieties) were regarded as nothing to get too hot-and-bothered about. And lest we think these folks indulged a similar view of the Communists: The Glasgow pro-appeasement publisher (and radically anti-monarchist socialist and pacifist) Guy Aldred – to name but one – remained staunchly anti-Soviet and anti-communist throughout his life. In any case, I wonder if there hasn’t always been a default tendency, on the part of many of the European “progressive” Left, to be almost instinctively Germanophile and Russophobe, regardless of the complexions of the various regimes that come and go in those countries.

  • Luke Lea

    @ Kenny – “Some facts. With enough will, the U.S. could defend Taiwan rather easily. That’s because the U.S. literally, and in every sense of the term, has first strike capability.”

    Oh, yeah, I forgot about that possibility. An even worse dream.

  • Francis T (#9) is at least partly correct with his criticism about the focus of the piece, but I think overall Walter gets more right than wrong.

    For one, WRM’s absolutely right in saying that the disruptiveness of technology is only starting to be felt in the international relations arena, and that most people aren’t even thinking in the right terms when they think about the challenges of tomorrow.

    The real challenge to states is as likely to come from non-state actors as from China or Russia—and by “non-state actors” I don’t mean to euphemize “terrorists”. The modern state still depends on a whole lot of secrecy and obfuscation to go about with business as usual, and as both the Wikileaks farrago and the Arab Spring have shown in their own unique ways, the open-access networked world poses real challenges to the status quo that states have come to take for granted. As most starry-eyed techno-idealists are hopefully coming to realize, though, the best intentions of a progressive Google executive in Cairo may nevertheless lead to a bad outcomes for Egypt and the region. Technology can do much to undermine secretive regimes, but it doesn’t automatically create a better reality in the wake of their collapse. Anarchy is a powerful acid, to which Francis T’s “open Internet society” is as vulnerable as anything.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea-

    You’re right about aircraft carriers being obsolete, in terms of largest-scale conflicts. They have been for fifty years. The only likely maritime survivor of the opening shots of a major power war is the elusive submarine, according to Sandhurst professor John Keegan.

    The thing is, we haven’t had any major power wars recently. Even battleships were effective enough up through the Vietnam War that removal of one from off the shores of Indochina was a major diplomatic goal of North Vietnamese negotiators.

    And even efforts to counter the increasingly limited nature of our expensive missile munitions (with swarms of small craft) are being themselves countered by new technologies. Lasers (I’m not kidding. Lasers.) are being developed as an infinite-ammunition countermeasure to this threat.

    Heck, they’d even be useful (moreso than Greenpeace, certainly) at non-fatally discouraging the illegal fishing fleets WRM was talking about a little while back. Shoot a missile at an illegal fishing boat and blow up a bunch of people, and you get a bunch of bad press. Slag their trawling equipment with a controlled energy beam, powered by your ship’s nuclear reactor, and you put them out of business while people write drop-jawed “the future is now” news pieces.

    Sorry WRM, but posting a piece on military trends on the internet, in an audience that includes reasonably well-read historians and technical professionals? You’re practically *begging* to get it nitpicked to death. 😉

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