American experts view the biggest threat to the United States is the wholesale disruption of the digital fabric that allows American society to function – such as the networks that undergird the financial system, power grids, the air traffic control system, and energy flows. A sophisticated attacker could severely damage a number of these vital webs simultaneously. And the sustained damage may far exceed any immediate disruption. Such a massive attack could quickly erode citizen confidence in our entire system of trade, records, and transport – interrelated events we take for granted every day, but upon which our society depends. This central nervous system of the nation is now at catastrophic risk.
Yet the United States continues to spend a staggeringly large part of its national security budget on traditional threats. The 2015 Department of Defense (DoD) budget tops $500 billion, but most of its capabilities investments are still squarely aimed at building more effective conventional warfare tool sets – bigger and better bombers, fighters, armored vehicles, and warships. The F-35 fifth generation jet fighter program alone has an expected lifetime cost of nearly $1 trillion, an unprecedented investment in high-end warfighting hardware. DoD cyber spending has increased
in recent years, but even defense experts often fail to realize that these efforts focus primarily on DoD networks and cyber warfare. They are not designed to address the broad societal vulnerability to digital threats.
In 1999, two colonels in China’s People’s Liberation Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, published a little-noticed volume called “Unrestricted Warfare.” They argued that a rising power like China would have little chance of competing militarily with an established dominant military power like the United States. They recognized that China could only prevail in a conflict with the United States by thinking and acting asymmetrically – fundamentally bypassing American strengths and striking at U.S. vulnerabilities.
Qiao and Wang listed a number of areas where concerted action against the United States would be immensely more effective in achieving China’s political objectives than military attacks would be. These included economic warfare, financial warfare, telecommunications and network warfare, resource warfare, information and media warfare, and international law warfare, to name but a few. Some of these ideas have already been incorporated into official Chinese military thinking. In 2015, it takes little imagination to see how many of these domains embody the core strengths and profound vulnerabilities of the United States. And yet the Department of Defense has at best a peripheral role in protecting Americans from the disruption and the collapse of vital functions should even one of these areas be successfully attacked and effectively upended – and the coercion such painful attacks could enable.