While yesterday we commemorated the courage and sacrifice of veterans and today’s soldiers, today it is worth considering what the battlefield of the future will look like. While the traditional modus operandi of war remains of paramount importance, recent years have seen a militarization of a different kind of battlefield: cyberspace. President Obama has called recent cyber attacks on American systems as “one of the most serious economic and national security threats our nation faces.” Cyber attacks pose a grave and fluid danger, to militaries to and citizens. Digital assault knows no borders: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 has expressed the importance of international collaboration within the United Nations to orchestrate a more coherent foreign multilateral policy. Stephen Walt, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, warns against the new danger of “cyber espionage.” Richard Clarke, the first ever presidential advisor on cybersecurity, and Robert Knake argue that the cyber espionage the United States has suffered in an amorphous online war is a conflict that rivals the loss of nuclear secrets in the nascent development of the nuclear bomb half a century ago. They identify the embedding of quiescent “logic bombs” and “trapdoors” to be particularly worrying: these digital traps can erupt without warning, wreaking widespread damage on rival networks and systems, blurring the boundaries between peace and war. These experts are spot on: this is an issue of national security concerning the very highest echelons of power. Thankfully, the federal government has increased national intelligence funding earmarked to beef up readiness against cyber attacks.
As Donald Rumsfeld would say, cyber attacks are now a “known unknown.” Yet, in the realm of public opinion, there remains a shroud of mystery cloaking this shifting paradigm of conflict. Serving in the technologically advanced Signals division of the Singapore Armed Forces before Yale, I hope to lift this shroud of mystery. The importance of ensuring uninterrupted and secure communications capabilities for command and control cannot be understated. I was particularly fortunate to have served at an opportune time, witnessing the ongoing transformation of the Singapore Armed Forces into a third-generation army, preparing against traditional and newer threats alike. Worldwide, signals and intelligence divisions like the one in which I served are at the vanguard of this transformation, developing a robust shield to defend national communication and intelligence networks from malicious agents in cyberspace.
Beyond an attack on military systems, malicious agents, state and non state, alike can cripple a nation’s civilian infrastructure networks. With the likely advent of an energy-sector “smart grid” — a digital power grid that would increase efficiency — the need to protect civilian infrastructure has never been more pressing. A few years down the line, a cyber attack on civilian energy infrastructure could cause widespread blackouts. Imagine hospitals across the country crippled, without power, for weeks at a time. Failure to protect against cyber attacks could cause widespread collateral damage. Before one dismisses this danger as speculative and improbable, it is worth remembering that, according a broad consensus in the intelligence community, in 2007 Russia penetrated and brought down Estonia’s sensitive government and commercial networks, bringing the small country to a standstill.
Given that the threat of cyber guerillas, state and non-state alike, is increasing, on Veterans’ day, it is worth pausing to consider that the future soldier could be defending cyberspace as well as traditional territorial boundaries. After all, nations need to build up robust systems that can not only defend themselves, but also build up offensive cyber capabilities should they be provoked. This nimbleness in cyber space is the 21st century equivalent of the “flexible response” doctrine of the Cold War against asymmetric enemies. The United States and its coalition allies were caught in a different and bloody transition as it adjusted its disproportionate force to the scrappy, guerilla tactics of the post-Cold War era. It ought to focus on developing cybersecurity capabilities lest it be caught unprepared again as the terms of engagement change.
While we continue to commemorate the brave, selfless sacrifices of soldiers and venerate the traditional values of virtue, courage and dedication, it is important to remember the shifting paradigms in military service. Truly, the specter of cyber-warfare necessitates new tactics on the battlefield.