That we stand today on the brink of some form of war does not seem to be debatable. America has enemies – people that would do us harm and even destroy our way of life. Who these enemies are is more fertile ground for debate. The world is simply too complicated, and the American public too uninformed by our government, to say with certainty who our real enemies are and who they are ultimately working for.
What we can do in an effort to be prepared is to look at all of the possible sources of attack – all of the other nations and groups that have interests in conflict with our own. When we do this a startling pattern emerges. Every significant threat against the Unites States has demonstrated some measure of tech savvy.
Islamic State (Isis) may pay lip service to a medieval lifestyle, but they have no difficulty using unencrypted social media tools like Twitter to communicate and recruit new members. China and North Korea have massive programs devoted to weaponized computing. These programs have massive budgets and access to talent that has trained on computers from a young age.
Standing between this threat and the infrastructure that powers the modern nation that we are so comfortable living in is a government that cannot even mount a credible defence, let alone coordinate an effective offensive strategy. Government systems in the US are hacked and data is stolen apparently at will, including the personal details of 18 million current, former and prospective federal employees.
World War 3 will be a cyberwar
This level of incompetence should be extremely troubling to any American for two reasons: our level of dependence on networked computers and the likelihood that the next major war will be a cyberwar.
No one can predict the future. We can make educated guesses or, more prudently, explore the different possibilities and scenarios. And for a scenario of cyberwar we are woefully unprepared – one could even say defenceless.
When we look to the past – to history – and find examples of what happened to armies and nations that found themselves in a similar situation, another pattern emerges - less startling but equally troubling.
In terms of instruments of slaughter, the United States may well be the best-prepared nation in the world. Our arsenal of bullets, bombs, tanks, planes, boats, missiles and our nuclear capabilities are rivalled by few, and likely exceeded by none. None of this matters in a cyberwar – a fact that could damage us when our weapons and equipment are turned against us using computers.
Machines turned against us
So what happens when an army or nation, even a seemingly well prepared army or nation, enters or is drawn into conflict unaware that the rules of engagement have changed?
One thing that happens can be seen by looking at the American Civil War. Advances in weaponry and equipment had rendered traditional tactics obsolete, and neither side was aware of it. The result of them not realizing this was tremendous bloodshed.
When the Civil War erupted, both sides entered into the engagement assuming an outmoded form of conflict. Generals on both sides had rigorously studied tactics and strategy manuals based in the Napoleonic era, and followed them during the first part of the war. The result was bloodbaths like Antietam and Fredericksburg.
What happened was that the weapons they had, though they looked much like weapons from Napoleon's era, were in many cases far more advanced, accurate and deadly. Previously sound offensive tactics were now literally suicidal. Both armies had to learn this the hard way. As the war developed, later battles were characterized more by trenches and fortifications than open battlefields.
Trusting your citizens with encryption
We see the same pattern in other engagements. The world was unprepared for the blitzkrieg tactics employed at the opening of the Second World War. Entire nations were subdued rapidly, finding themselves unable to mount any kind of defence against this innovation in strategy based on technological advances. Later, the attempt to subdue North Vietnam using tactics from the Second World War was a miserable failure.
While we fatuously debate whether or not to put soldiers on the ground in some Middle Eastern nation or another, or how to best attack IS using our massive military machine, the fact is that the rules of engagement for 21st century conflicts lie along different lines. What good will tanks, planes and missiles be if you cannot locate the enemy to engage them? And what will the outlook be for us as the enemy takes down massive pieces of our infrastructure at will, without ever setting foot on our shores?
Some people choose to dismiss the looming spectre of cyberwar as paranoia or fantasy. Those charged with our defence and protection would not seem to agree with this assessment. In fact, FBI Director James Comey agrees with me that we are already engaged in cyberwar with China.
They also agree that our defences are inadequate, and say that they will need our help to fix that. The problem is that they have been treating us like the enemy, and they continue to do so. We are told that we cannot be trusted with tools like encryption. The cameras, the microphones – they are all pointed at us. And they are asking us to give up even more freedom and privacy to cover their own incompetence and inability to meet this threat.
If this is how they intend to protect our networks, they will fail.
And if we are unable to protect our networks, everything connected to them can be infiltrated by hackers. In our modern world this includes our power grid, nuclear power stations, planes, cars and our entire financial infrastructure. These will be the weapons of cyberwar – turned against us in a perversion of their intended purpose. We are living in a doomsday machine of our own design – one that when activated will make the Battle of Antietam look like a Sunday picnic.