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Are We Prepared For Cyber War?


Three events on April 11 remind us that cyber-security is a serious issue, not only for America’s safety, but for our prosperity.

The first event was the report from Iran that the government’s nuclear facility at Natanz, buried some 50 yards underground, had suffered a catastrophic explosion. The question: What triggered the blast? The tech site Gizmodo headlined its report, “Son of Stuxnet?”  That was an allusion to a 2010 attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, caused by the Stuxnet computer virus.

Interestingly, The Jerusalem Post reports from government sources that the Natanz destruction was caused by an actual saboteur. We might observe that such a report could well be a meme aimed at making the Iranians even more paranoid, and suspicious of their own nuclear workers; that’s a situation not conducive to good R&D—which is fine with Israel.

The second event was the report from The Daily Beast about the videotaped words of Russian propaganda official Margarita Simonyan, who declared, “War [with the U.S.] is inevitable.” She added, “I do not believe that this will be a large-scale hot war, like World War II, and I do not believe that there will be a long Cold War.  It will be a war of the third type: the cyber war.” She further predicted that Russia would win such a conflict: “We don’t even need the nukes.”

The third event came on “60 Minutes,” when Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell said that his biggest concern is “cyber risk.”  As he put it, “There are scenarios in which a large financial institution would lose the ability to track the payments that it’s making, where you would have a part of the financial system come to a halt.”  Yes, for sure, we have enough problems right now; we don’t need a replay of 2008—or of 1929.

So what to make of these three news items? They come on top, of course, of a near-endless string of scary cyber events, including Russia’s alleged 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee, China’s annual theft of several hundred billion dollars of U.S. intellectual property, and, just on April 5, the news of a hack of more than 500 million Facebook accounts

So what should the U.S. do?  It’s heartening that the Biden administration now seems committed to withdrawing, finally, from Afghanistan; in addition to the no-win drain of the fighting, the conflict has been a two-decade detour into low-tech counterinsurgency, encouraging the U.S. military to focus on low-yield objectives such as pacifying villages, while the Chinese, Russians, et al. have been free to focus on cyber and other high-tech weapons.

Indeed, the Pentagon has already been scrambling to catch up in prep for the tech wars of the future.  In 2018, the Defense Department established a Cyber Command, taking its place as of the 11 “combatant commands.”  And there are now cyber-security operations scattered all across the federal government, including at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security.

So will these institutional evolutions solve our cyber-security problem?  Let’s hope so.

Yet Mark Hagerott isn’t so sure. He’s a former Navy nuclear engineer and White House Fellow, now Chancellor for the North Dakota University System, who has long been preoccupied with cyber-security. Back in 2017, Hagerott coauthored, along with retired Navy four-star James Stavridis, an article in Foreign Policy, urging President Trump to establish a full-fledged service academy for cyber warriors, just as we have at Annapolis for the Navy and the Marines, at West Point for the Army, and at Colorado Springs for the Air Force.

Four years later, Hagerott is still making his case. And it can be stated simply, as it’s based on the canny observation that the current service academies will always deem cyber to be secondary to their core missions. These are, respectively, ships, airplanes, and soldiers.

In an interview, Hagerott asserted: “We have training for fighting on water, in the air, or on land, and yet now we have this entirely disembodied area of cyberspace.” And that’s a place, he adds, “that’s completely detached from flying planes, or driving tanks,” where the winner is “whichever algorithm is stronger.”  In other words, it’s entirely possible that a foe could seek to bypass our hulking military forces by attacking us in cyberspace, crippling our command and control — and perhaps even doing to our assets what the Israelis have been doing to Iranian centrifuges.

Moreover, Hagerott continues, we’ve only begun to think about the defense of the homeland: “power systems, ag systems, ventilation, all our data-driven infrastructure.”

Hagerott was delighted to see like-minded thinking from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which issued its final report on March 1, including this recommendation: “We should establish a new Digital Service Academy and civilian National Reserve to grow tech talent with the same seriousness of purpose that we grow military officers. The digital age demands a digital corps.”

Whether it’s a military service academy dedicated to cyber defense, or a digital academy, including civilians aimed toward the same end — Hagerott is for it. Indeed, as he explains, the stakes are even higher than the defense of the United States: “The question is which digital system — such as, for example, the HTTPS Internet protocol — is going to prevail around the world.”

And that, he adds, is a pointed question for the future of the whole planet: Should the global system be free and open, as the Internet is now, or will it be something unfree and closed, as the People’s Republic of China would have it?

As Hagerott observes, “We’re not just in an arms race, but rather, we’re in a systems race.”  And for the sake of our prosperity, our security, and our basic human liberty, we’d best not lose.  So if a cyber academy can help stave off such a plunge into a new dark age, it’s indeed well worth it.

James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.

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