Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Learning to Fight When Screens Go Dark

If we woke up tomorrow and found that none of our laptops, iPhones, iPads, or personal assistants worked, what would we do?

A damaged circuitboard. (Flickr)
A damaged circuitboard. (Flickr)


By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist


By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

If we woke up tomorrow and found that none of our laptops, iPhones, iPads, or personal assistants worked, what would we do? I suspect that many millenials would go into brain freeze. They have literally never been off the web. However, an event such as that would have devastating effects on all of us. In our near-paperless society, our bank records, medical records, and other key personal data would be lost.

Even if the disruption lasted only days or weeks, the social and economic consequences would far exceed 9/11 in impact. All of that would be bad, but the military impact is potentially worse. If whatever entity that causes this internet apocalypse is prepared to operate without computers, cellular communications, or even radios the effect on US national security could be worse than the dark months following Pearl Harbor when the Japanese overran virtually all of the Pacific east of Hawaii. We now know that American adversaries — to include state and non-state actors — are attempting to challenge us for cyberspace domination. We need to ask ourselves what we would do if they succeed only temporarily.

Conventional wisdom has it that the internet cannot be taken down but every time someone has claimed that something is impossible, someone else has done it. Even if the cloud cannot be destroyed, the hardware devices that translate the information it contains into human use remain vulnerable. Let’s take electromagnetic pulse (EMP) as an example. A series of low-yield nuclear explosions are capable of frying every computer, cell phone, power grid, and computer dependent vehicle in the radius of each blast. Some military experts think that the use of such a weapon is unlikely as the effect of EMP is omni-directional and will impact the side that sets it off as badly as it does the side initiating the blast. This logic holds up as long as the initiating actor is also relying on computers and electromagnetic means to command and control their forces. However, if they find a way to fight without the grid and the cloud, while denying cyberspace to us, we’re toast.

Some key U.S. military systems are hardened against EMP, but the vast majority are not. Nor are commercial means, which still enable much military traffic. The national command authority in Washington may be able to talk to the generals in Seoul or in the Middle East; but all that is useless if the generals can’t communicate with the people commanding regiments, battalions, and aircraft squadrons. Today’s military depends on knowing where virtually every rifle squad is all the time. Our forces are accustomed to having unmanned aircraft scouting as well as satellite imagery giving them a god’s eye view of the battlefield and even to navigate on it. When American advisors reach Afghan Army units, they are often appalled to find their new partners using paper maps and marking unit locations with grease pencils. Some are even using couriers to transmit orders and receive reports. The Americans think this is unacceptable.

What these would-be tutors seem to forget is that the Taliban have survived for sixteen years fighting the best that high-tech America can throw at them. They make minimal use of radios because their locations can be pinpointed. When forced to use electronic means, the best of them use brevity codes, keep transmissions to a bare minimum, and move their transmitters immediately. Messengers traveling by foot or vehicle may be slow, but they are relatively secure. Individual unit leaders are empowered to make decisions locally without much in the way of higher headquarters supervision on a daily basis. They may not be winning any big battles, but they have stayed in the fight despite absolute American control of the air, overwhelming firepower, and absolute supremacy in cyberspace. Right or wrong, the Taliban’s leaders are playing George Washington’s long game of keeping their army in the field and waiting for the Americans to tire. That almost happened in the 2011-16 timeframe, but American willpower has proved more resilient than Taliban leaders had hoped, so they still continue to play the game of keeping their army intact. So, what might our potential enemies be learning from the Taliban, and the Islamic State to some extent?

If I am a weak regional enemy or non-state actor with the means to deny the electromagnetic spectrum — including cyberspace — to the Americans for a certain amount of time measured in weeks or months for a radius of perhaps a thousand miles, how would I plan to exploit it? Let’s postulate for a moment that a new Serbian leader has such a capability and wants to use it to retake Kosovo. I doubt very seriously that they would try to build American-style capabilities. The first thing I would do would to be to force the essential elements of my economy and government to go back to paper record keeping. I’d strip my tanks and military vehicles as well as military aircraft of digital equipment was well. My air force would resemble Earth’s remaining air power in the movie Independence Day.

I would not use my EMP-like weapon immediately in support of my invasion. My troops would be given mission-type orders that would allow them latitude to carry out my intent on their own initiative, even if I could not communicate with them. Changes in orders and reports would be sent by motorcycle or aerial messenger or by primitive analog land lines. Artillery would also be called in by land line and there would be thousands of decoys designed to cause the opponent to waste scarce precision munitions as Hezbollah did to the Israelis in 2006. The United States and NATO would try to respond with precision air strikes and computer coordinated deployment of ground, naval and air forces to reinforce Kosovo. That is when I would pull the EMP-like trigger.

I would use the resulting chaos to allied command and control and computer dependent systems to complete my takeover of Kosovo and dig my troops in among the civilian population. While the Americans and NATO were recovering from the damage and regrouping, I’d set out some reasonable demands and promise to respect the rights of Kosovo’s Muslims while offering to negotiate. The Americans are technologically resilient and would eventually recover, but they would be faced with the kind of bloody street-to-street urban fighting that killed thousands of civilians recently in Raqqa and Mosul. Would Kosovo be worth the effort? Would Baghdad or Amman? Those would be hard questions for American political decision makers.

Kosovo is just theoretical example, but my point is that we are currently totally unprepared for such a scenario. All of our military planning assumes air, space, and cyberspace superiority. Every debacle in military history from Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps to Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge has started from the assumption that any enemy couldn’t do what they did.

American military planners would be well advised in devoting some degree of planning and training to fighting if the lights go out. Some low-level commanders are already doing this. I know of Navy ship commanders who turn of all of their radios for a day every week and navigate by sextant. Some company battalion, and even regimental commanders are doing the same thing on land. But from the divisional level on up, we are woefully unprepared to fight when the screens go dark. I am doing my part. I have a bunch of forever stamps, and I’m not afraid to use them.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who lectures in alternative analysis (red teaming) at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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