In this article, two writers from Prospect Journal debate the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and cyber warfare in current and future conflicts.
The Changing Nature of Warfare and the Importance of Cyber Security
By Patrick Johnson
The debate before us is a matter of proportions. A modern military is made up of many distinct components that continually shift and evolve as time progresses. In the upcoming Prospect Connect event entitled “Modern Warfare,” an expert panel will discuss four ‘hot-button’ issues that are sure to define the next decade of warfare: drones, cyber warfare, nuclear proliferation, and Foreign Internal Defense (FID). The latter two are military matters that have existed since 1945, but the former two, drones and cyber warfare, are relatively new concepts. Drones were not a factor in war until 2001 and did not take the forefront of national attention until this year. Similarly, the idea of cyber warfare has existed since the Internet was invented, but as the world continues to integrate itself digitally, the potential of a cyber attack has positioned cyber warfare high on the national security threat list. These two factors are gaining ever-greater importance in our national security, and so long as terrorism remains a higher probability than a ground war, it will continue to remain so.
Drone usage has risen exponentially under the Obama administration. The redirecting of war efforts from Iraq to hunting top al-Qaeda leaders presented a natural opportunity for these unmanned hunters to become the weapon of choice for American commanders. The increase in drone strikes has prompted the predictable and justifiable international backlash to the ease with which the United States kills foreign combatants, but the increased reliance on drones to carry out missions remains unabated. Senator Rand Paul carried out an ostentatious 13-hour filibuster over the issue of lax definitions of acceptable drone targets. All across the country, military industrial sectors are gearing up for a huge demand in drone production and research. In sum, these events stand tribute to the now permanent role drones have in modern warfare and the unknown extent to which this new technology will affect our lives.
Mirroring the unknown possibilities of how drones will be used in the future is the frightening unknown factor of how cyber warfare will impact future wars. It is easy to dismiss this form of warfare as science fiction hyperbole. It is less easy to dismiss the verbal warnings of our nation’s top national security advisors: in a recent testimony, Congress’ James R. Clapper, the nation’s top intelligence official, referred to cyber warfare has a high priority national security threat. A cyber attack against the United States has the potential to take down key infrastructure and cause “long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.” This threat, while remote, outranks even a terrorist attack in terms of severity. The ease with which hackers, traced by a US cyber security firm to Shanghai, were able to access New York Times databases and federal servers underlines how little we understand cyber security and how vulnerable our ‘secure’ information may be. Technology is out-racing policy makers by a mile, posing a major national security threat. If the hacker group Anonymous is able to hack into the Justice Department’s servers, so can foreign governments, and in the event of a real war cyber warfare will certainly spell victory. Control over a combatant’s cyber capabilities will mean one controls their best means for communication and their best means of organizing a war effort.
I’m not suggesting that a conventional military will become irrelevant–I’m simply arguing that the demonstrated reliance on drones and the remote but growing threat of a cyber attack indicates a shift away from conventional warfare and towards technological realities. We must be careful to not simply dismiss these factors as trivial, but rather accept them in the ever-changing framework of warfare and prepare ourselves accordingly. Drones and cyber security do not subvert our critical conventional armed forces–they merely reflect the modern realities of national security.
New Lines in the Sand: Drones, Cyber Attacks, and the Unchanging Nature of War
By Joe Armenta
Many, including my colleague, believe that a new era of warfare is upon us. Post-modern technology, they argue, is reshaping the rules of the game, raising new threats to national security and ultimately blurring the traditional lines of the nation-state. While cyber attacks and drone strikes are certainly an emerging hazard in the contemporary global arena, the effects that they will have on the future of warfare are grossly exaggerated.
Much of the fear mongering surrounding the use of these instruments largely revolves around popular culture and high-profile incidents. The infiltration of the New York Times and Google by alleged Chinese subordinates feeds the fear of vulnerability among Americans and policymakers alike. Meanwhile, Rand Paul’s 13-hour tirade regarding the use of drones on civilian populations feeds into the despotic imaginations of the anti-establishment.
Yet, what is still unclear is the effect that these weapons will actually have in the context of war in the twenty-first century. The term cyber warfare may seem blatantly obvious, bringing about images of Javier Bardem’s character blowing up offices via laptop in the summer blockbuster Skyfall. However, it should be noted that the phrase is poorly defined. In regards to this issue, a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2011 stated, “an attack or an incident can include anything from an easily-identified phishing attempt to obtain password details, a readily detected virus or a failed log-in to a highly sophisticated multi-stranded stealth onslaught.”
The lack of a clear definition regarding cyber attacks leads to an inaccurate portrayal of the threat. Furthermore, while weaponized cyber technology is said to have devastating effects against targeted infrastructure by harnessing the potential power to knock off power grids and limit an enemy’s communications, the extent of this damage is largely unknown. The stuxnet virus, the only recorded usage of cyber weaponry on infrastructure, merely slowed down operations for a short time, only to become detected and dismantled. In the face of an all out war between developed countries, it is hard to imagine that one power could harness support for technology with such uncertainty—especially when a cheaper conventional bomb can assure a more desired result.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, do play a significant role in contemporary warfare by changing the incentive structures of decision-makers. Drones offer a high reward of eliminating an enemy with a low risk of harming the perpetrator. But, accrediting this technology to transcending the lines of the nation-state is simply hyperbolic. The impact that drones are having on the state of global affairs is the byproduct of domestic and international law lagging behind technological development. The covert usage of this weapon in Pakistan and Yemen is no different than commando troops fighting guerrilla forces in Latin America during the 1980s.
Rather than blurring the lines of traditional order, cyber warfare and drones are strengthening the nation-state. It is because of the mass hype surrounding these weapons that new lines and borders are emerging out of previously unoccupied spaces. The domestic and international pressure against drones will ultimately lead to policies that define where unmanned vehicles can and cannot enter. Moreover, the hysteria surrounding cyber warfare only encourages the production of barriers in cyberspace. Around the world, countries are militarizing the Internet by deciding who can and cannot access certain material. This comes in many forms, from China blocking web pages to the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act passed by the US Congress in 2012.
Nations, like people, are not stagnant. When new threats emerge they adjust accordingly with measures to protect the sanctity of their sovereignty. It is our jobs as citizens to ensure that the threat is a real danger so we can avoid kneejerk responses fueled by our imaginations.
Photo by Debra Sweet