- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lieutenant Colonel Dan Huynh and Captain Erick Waage, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest respondents
In response to Conrad Crane’s recent article “Don’t Buy the overpromises of cyber, because it consistently under-delivers,” we agree with him that, like many individual technology products or services, cyber is experiencing a hype cycle. However, to downplay the role of cyber in future conflicts based off of its performance in recent years, reflects the same mistakes that our military has made in the past with recognizing the value of other emerging technologies. Some take decades of experimentation, trial iterations, and (hopefully) fast failures before they can truly be operationalized and effectively employed in conflict.
Like many others, this critique of cyber is too focused on the technical solutions currently being attempted or fielded and speaks only to potential offensive capabilities. We should view cyber as more of a state of mind versus a sushi menu of individual capabilities that did or didn’t work. By that, we mean that all leaders regardless of industry and generation, are going to have to embrace digital disruption to deeply examine opportunities and vulnerabilities caused by rapid advances in information technology. Once we collectively begin looking at problems in that context, we will fully realize the true capability. Luckily for the military, we have examples in the development of motorized armor to reference our way-ahead, from realization to operationalization.
Looking at the nascent stages of armor in the American military, the tank was a sort of place holder for examining the effects of armored motorization on conflict. Young officers like Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton no doubt spent countless inter-war hours trying to realize what warfare might look like with the inclusion of fast-moving armor. Tanks had a mixed bag of successes and failures relative to World War I. Without a doubt, they and the organizational concepts supporting their initial employment under-delivered on some important occasions. So much so, that when then Captain Dwight Eisenhower wrote this article in the Infantry Journal in 1920 discussing the potential merits of armor, he almost got himself canned by an older and technologically dismissive generation. Many of us also know that even in the opening scenes of America’s armor experience in World War II, tank formations suffered some pretty major set-backs. Thankfully, after injecting some key personalities who had been living in an armor state of mind for almost two decades, we did get our stuff together and truly optimized the tactical and strategic value of motorized armor. The combat effectiveness of armor took a couple of generations for the Army to fully realize and operationalize, but when it did, it often proved decisive in battles against foes who themselves had already mastered the tank.
Crane’s points reflect what we have felt observing some of these cyber-related events, and we’re thankful that we have people like him driving dialogue and churning on tough problems like cyber. We also agree that, given cyber’s rapidly evolving nature, it may be unwise to quantify its present capabilities to the conventional force structure. However, it is equally unwise to let the dilemmas and challenges that we face today in developing cyber concepts and operationalizing cyber tools be used as indicators for success in future conflicts. Nor should it be used as a gauge to discourage us from continuing to experiment with cyber force structures and operationalization.
Across the Department of Defense, there are numerous examples where we’re achieving success in the cyberspace domain. To name a few, building cyber-capacity and establishing partnerships with industry are examples of where we are making great strides. Though it is often easy to generalize and sometimes meaningful to simplify our challenges within cybersecurity, we should not overlook the true complexity of the operating environment and lose the details that matter. In this vein, we agree there should be careful expectation management, but also understand that getting both offensive and defensive cyberoperations right will take trial and error by those operating with a cyber state of mind. Like the armor advocates of the interwar period, we must accept that we may not get immediate satisfaction in the cyberspace domain.
Similar to many successful businesses, with little return it may take time for our cyberforces to capture the market, but when they do, the results will significantly increase our competitive advantage in this critical space. The rising officers, or martial entrepreneurs, in the inter-war period who spent their careers in an armor state of mind required decades to capture the market in that space. They identified the disruption caused by motorization and armor and, though challenging, sought to create a military advantage for our country. However, unlike armor, cyber is intertwined with a majority of the military, industrial, and corporate systems that run America and its partners. So, regardless of whether you grew up listening to “New York State of Mind” or “Empire State of Mind,” for our nation to make it through this era of digital disruption, we’re all going to have to develop a cyber state of mind.
Lieutenant Colonel Dan Huynh and Captain Erick Waage are cyber officers and members of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. Collectively, they have served in multiple Cyber and Electronic Warfare-related positions supporting both conventional and special operations forces. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, Army Cyber Command, the Department of the Army, U.S. Cyber Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons