Cyber Pearl Harbor Versus The Real Pearl Harbor

By: 8 months ago

An attack on critical infrastructure is not a "Pearl Harbor." A military defeat by cyber means is.

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Today, December 7, is a good day to re-think the implications of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”  Leon Panetta, famously used the term in 2011, when it seemed like all of our generals had become cyber experts overnight.

"The potential for the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyber-attack," the CIA Director testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

At the time Keith Alexander was in the midst of standing up US Cyber Command which achieved operational readiness on October 31, 2010 months before Panetta’s statement.

Panetta, and just about anyone else inside the Beltway uses the term Cyber Pearl Harbor to imply a disabling attack on critical infrastructure. Yes, our power grid, communications, and traffic lights, are very poorly protected from hackers.  Yes, an attack similar to that in Ukraine over Christmas 2015 would not be difficult to achieve. But would it be strategic? What purpose would it serve a foreign government to shut down the power in the United States? Would China want to damage the economy of its biggest market?  Would Russia risk the blow back?  Perhaps Iran or DPRK would figure they had nothing to lose?

Regardless, an attack on critical infrastructure is something for the Department of Homeland Security to worry about. The DoD has bigger worries.

Back before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before military thinkers and policymakers became obsessed with counterinsurgency, the idea of the day was the Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA, a doctrine that emphasized modern information, technology and communications. It was sparked by Soviet analysis of the West’s move towards more reliance on precision targeting and coordination as demonstrated in Operation Desert Storm.

The reclusive and enigmatic “Yoda” of the Pentagon, Andrew Marshall, was pouring through Russian language journals and presumably secret communiques. He was intrigued by the Soviet identification of a “Military Technical Revolution.” Europe throughout the Cold War occupied the center of the chessboard. On one hand, grand strategy revolved around a massive preemptive blitz of tanks and troops supported by air and even tactical nuclear weapons, emanating from the Soviet bloc, and on the other hand, arms buildup and nuclear deterrence from the West.

When Russian and Chinese thinkers witnessed an actual invasion using massed weapons and troops, supported by air and stand-off cruise missiles, as a U.S.-led coalition easily pushed Iraqi forces from Kuwait, they believed they saw the future of modern warfare. A combination of precision-guided weapons, networked intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and modern command and control would be a force multiplier while eliminating the fog of war.

Arthur Cebrowski was the chief proponent of the new Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). His 1998 paper, Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future Proceedings, written while he was still director for Space, Information Warfare, and Command and Control, is imbued with the excitement of the halcyon days of the internet boom. Reading it today, one is struck by the enthusiasm for networking that was the dot-com boom:

“We are in the midst of a revolution in military affairs (RMA) unlike any seen since the Napoleonic Age, when France transformed warfare with the concept of levée en masse. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson has called it ‘a fundamental shift from what we call platform-centric warfare to something we call network-centric warfare’, and it will prove to be the most important RMA in the past 200 years.”

In his Pentagon briefing upon taking the director of Force Transformation role, Cebrowski said: “If you are not interoperable, you are not on the net. You are not benefiting from the information age.” Cebrowski was the Scott McNealy of the Pentagon.

When modernized militaries next engage in combat, expect a debilitating cyber-attack giving the adversary an asymmetric advantage. The move to Network-centric warfighting by the U.S. military set the stage for an inevitable Cyber Pearl Harbor.

The tenets of NCW, once again, are: Eliminating the fog of war through a sensor grid, and a combination of precision-guided weapons, ISR, and command and control. The U.S. military, and other militaries around the world on both sides, were late to the computer and networking game (now dubbed “cyber”) but determined to catch up. A global information grid was sketched out. Satellites for reconnaissance and communication were launched. Precision GPS systems deployed. Drones for ISR and weapons delivery to targets were built in ever increasing numbers. A high altitude drone, the Global Hawk, was deployed not only to replace the 50s vintage U2 platform but to add a layer to the ISR and command and control from land, sea, and air systems.


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