Pentagon planners are dusting off the Cold War deterrence playbook to plan for cyberattacks, but Iraq and Afghanistan would be better models.
- By Robert HaddickRobert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.
The Pentagon’s cyberwarfare doctrine begins to emerge
This week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Pentagon strategists are completing a document that outlines the government’s cyberwarfare strategy. The Pentagon is expected to publish an unclassified version next month. According to the Journal, Pentagon strategists are prepared to declare that a sufficiently damaging cyberattack against the United States could be viewed as an "act of war," warranting equivalent retaliation. And that retaliation would not necessarily be a U.S. cyber-counterstrike. As one official put it, "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks." It is good that the government is finally establishing a doctrine for dealing with cyberwarfare. But strategists still must grapple with a challenging form of warfare that combines elements of Cold War-era deterrence theory and modern counterinsurgency doctrine.
According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon has developed a list of cyberweapons, including various worms and viruses, for use either in support of an existing military campaign or for use, with presidential approval, at the strategic level. According to the emerging doctrine, U.S. military commanders in existing war zones would have the authority to use cyberweapons to collect intelligence from adversary networks and support tactical operations in a broader military campaign. At the strategic level, presidential approval would be required for attacks against an adversary’s industrial infrastructure like the Stuxnet worm against Iran’s nuclear complex.
It is not so simple to find a neat divide between strategic cyberattacks requiring presidential approval and tactical attacks delegated to field commanders. The doctrine appears to reserve to the president the decision to attack portions of an adversary’s civilian infrastructure. But in an ongoing military campaign, adversary military forces will use portions of the civilian infrastructure — for example, the telecommunications system — for tactical military purposes. This will certainly be true if the adversary is a nonstate actor. A local commander’s tactical use of cyberweapons could have wider strategic effects. As with all doctrine, the emerging cyberwarfare doctrine will undergo many changes after decision-makers encounter practical experience.
The Journal article highlighted the threat to use traditional military power in retaliation for a cyberattack that cripples U.S. infrastructure. Reserving the right to expand the boundaries of retaliation should not come as a surprise. Earlier this year, Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, discussed a similar retaliatory policy when he rolled out the National Security Space Strategy. As I discussed in a column at that time, that strategy seeks to use diplomacy and soft power to protect U.S. assets and interests in space. But if it became necessary, Schulte asserted a broad retaliatory policy to deter attacks on U.S. space interests. The emerging cyberwarfare doctrine appears to follow the same principle.
Announcing such a policy is one thing. Implementing it in a crisis won’t be easy, as Cold War policymakers discovered to their discomfort. Recently, anonymous hackers attempted to penetrate Lockheed Martin’s networks and apparently did succeed in cracking into Google’s Gmail service. Having caused no deaths or widespread economic calamity, such attacks wouldn’t seem to rise to the level requiring the kind of punitive retaliation discussed in the Wall Street Journal piece.
But these incidents expose some of the dilemmas cyberwarfare strategists will face. Who exactly were the attackers? The problem of attribution remains unsolved, at least to the degree necessary to convince world opinion that punitive and deadly U.S. retaliation would be legally and morally justified. The emerging U.S. cyberwarfare doctrine will presumably seek to hold governments responsible for the cyberattacks that originate from their territory. Such a policy is designed to elicit cooperative behavior from governments. But it creates opportunities for mischief by nonstate actors and will set up an agonizing test of the U.S. government’s retaliatory credibility.
Policymakers are tempted to view cyber warfare through the lens of deterrence theory. But as long as the attackers remain anonymous, cyberwarfare more closely resembles counterinsurgency — a form of warfare where the U.S. government is still struggling to crack the code.
Does Obama have three more years for Afghanistan?
The Obama administration’s plan for Afghanistan is to gradually shift responsibility for the country’s security to Afghan forces, a task slated to be completed by the end of 2014. After that, the administration anticipates maintaining a much smaller U.S. force in the country to support the Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations in the region. Barack Obama and his advisors hope to show a clear beginning of this transition this summer with a more-than-token withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
But this timeline implies at least three more years of fighting in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, on top of the decade they have already spent there. In the past few weeks, evidence of the war’s political friction has appeared in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States. Military commanders want to stick to the plan for an orderly transition to Afghan responsibility, but whether that three-year timeline can survive is now in question.
The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad has sent U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low. In May, Pakistan ejected 20 percent of the U.S. Special Forces soldiers that are training its Frontier Corps. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen made yet another trip to Islamabad in an effort to patch up relations. However, the visit revealed no news regarding the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries on Pakistani territory, which are widely believed to be under the protection of Pakistan’s intelligence services.
On May 28, a U.S. airstrike on Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan who had ambushed a U.S. Marine patrol killed 14 civilians, including 11 children, after the insurgents took cover inside a nearby compound and continued to fire on the Marines. In response, President Hamid Karzai demanded an end to all coalition air attacks on Afghan homes, declaring that this was his "last" warning on the issue of coalition-inflicted civilian deaths. Asserting that coalition troops were on the verge of becoming occupiers instead of allies, Karzai warned that "history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and with occupiers."
The war’s popularity inside the United States may be fading as fast as Karzai’s tolerance. The House of Representatives barely rejected — 204 to 215 — an amendment that would have required the administration to establish a faster timeline to exit Afghanistan. Twenty-six Republicans and all but eight Democrats voted for the measure. According to the Washington Post, a group of civilian advisors to Obama will soon make the argument that the financial cost of the Afghanistan war — $113 billion this fiscal year and $107 billion next year — is too much when the goals and the risks of obtaining those goals are considered. To these advisors, spending on Afghanistan operations is a ripe target for fast budget savings.
Of course, none of these developments are really new. Rather, they are new eruptions of old syndromes. Leaders on both sides undoubtedly agree that the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is an unnatural coupling, which has always bounced from crisis to crisis. Karzai has always chafed at the foreign military presence in his country and the treatment he receives from U.S. officials. And it should be no surprise to see members of Congress vote against a long war, especially when the vote won’t count for anything.
The danger isn’t that Pakistan will completely sever relations with the United States, that Karzai will walk out of his palace and join up with Mullah Omar in Quetta, or that Congress will cut off funding for the war. The real danger is to the enthusiasm and will required by all actors to execute Obama’s transition plan. Karzai’s diminishing confidence in the coalition and its tactics could undercut the effort to recruit motivated and effective Afghan soldiers and police, the real "exit strategy" for the coalition. Deepened Pakistani intransigence over the Afghan Taliban would hobble the effort to pacify the Pashtun portion of Afghanistan. The result would be deterioration rather than an orderly transition to Afghan control.
Obama is counting on holding all of the players together for three more years of combat. He may be counting on too much.