Throughout the past several decades, in my capacity as deputy director and then acting director of national intelligence, I’ve participated in National Security Council meetings about immediate challenges, from North Korea’s aggressive missile and nuclear development programs to Russian military operations and its borders, and from ISIS threats to the homeland to Chinese action in the South China Sea.
Michael Dempsey is the federal intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former acting director of national intelligence. The author is an employee of the US administration on a sponsored fellowship, but all opinions are those of the author and don’t reflect the official opinions of the US government.
Even in instances where the threat that the US confronted was particularly complicated, there was a recognizable policy playbook of choices, in addition to a shared comprehension of how to approach those crises. However, in today’s dynamic security landscape, it is reasonable to ask if US policymakers might soon be forced to grapple with a new set of threats that we have no common understanding or carefully considered counter-measures.
Three emerging trends will significantly alter our security environment in the coming years and therefore are worthy of careful inspection.
First, consider the growth in automation, and the automatic automobile market specifically. Industry projections are that a sizable share of the auto market–many million cars–will be self-driving by 2030. It isn’t tough to envision how terrorist groups or ill-intentioned state actors could accommodate this technology in frightening ways.
After all, how hard is it to turn a driverless car to a driverless vehicle bomb? The almost inevitable increase in the automation of airplanes, trains, buses, ships, and unmanned aerial vehicles will provide nefarious celebrities myriad opportunities to tamper with navigation and control systems, possibly affording them the opportunity to create a mass casualty event without having anyone present at the scene of the assault. Imagine a worst case scenario where we encounter a 9/11–kind attack–but with no real hijackers.
A corollary challenge is the arrival and expansion of autonomous weapons. While the US military has tight (and legal) restrictions in place to ensure a human is constantly involved in the final decision to fire such a weapon, it is not certain that other nations that develop these systems in the long run–and over a dozen have them in the works–will be willing or able to apply this level of control. This opens the door to a range of potential threats, including the danger that someone with ill will could hack a weapon and use it to attack critical infrastructure, including bridges, hospitals, or dams.
This threat is sufficiently plausible that Elon Musk and a group of over 100 leaders in the robotics and artificial intelligence community recently called on the United Nations to prohibit the growth of autonomous weapons. Although this is a noble sentiment and I’d endorse, the history of weapons development indicates that a ban has little prospect of succeeding.
A second largest threat is the proliferation of sophisticated conventional weapons and capacities. For most of the last few decades, the US has managed to project military power virtually uncontested around the world, with minimal risk. Now, with the proliferation of precision-guided missiles of extended variety, coupled with advanced tracking systems which may be accessible to both state and non-state celebrities, that age is quickly coming to an end.
Consider the situation we now face off the coast of Yemen at the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. A crucial shipping lane between Europe and Asia, the Strait is just 18 miles wide at its narrowest point. US ships operating in these waters are now within the array of sophisticated missiles fired by a central government, but from Houthi rebels (armed with Iranian-provided technologies) and empowered by commercially available radar systems which could be used to monitor our ships.
Meanwhile, there are now multiple nations and non-state celebrities, such as ISIS and Hezbollah, that are working drones within the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, a development that could have been inconceivable just a decade ago. In actuality, ISIS’s use of armed drones against Iraqi security forces earlier this year delayed their progress on Mosul, highlighting the unfortunate fact that using unmanned aerial platforms will be a feature in just about all future conflicts.
A third emerging threat is the continuous erosion of the US’s benefit in the field of information awareness. The US has enjoyed a remarkable lead over our adversaries in the past quarter century in understanding what is actually occurring on the ground in even the most distant areas of the world. I’ve personally witnessed multiple disasters in which the US president knew more about the situation within a nation than the leader of the nation. However, the explosion of access to information through various types of commercially available technology is starting to chip away at the advantage.
As the present national intelligence officer for military affairs, Anthony Schinella, once commented to me, during the 1991 Gulf War that the US was able to maneuver the whole 18th Airborne Corps across what was thought to be an impassable roadless desert and reach a decisive battle victory in large part because the US had two technologies which the Iraqi Army didn’t: overhead imagery and GPS. These days, many elementary school-age kids have both on their own phones.
It is not an exaggeration to state that an ordinary person in many regions of the world can now get online and within one hour purchase a little drone, GPS guidance system, and high-resolution camera, and thereby have the capacity to obtain information that would have been unthinkable even a generation ago, such as on US military bases and crucial weapons storage websites.
Meanwhile, the remarkable growth in end-to-end encryption technologies in the private sector is making it easier for terrorists and countries to conceal their communication, significantly reducing our capacity to understand their operational and planning cycles.
The erosion of the American advantage in the information domain will affect our decision-making procedure and timeline for military action. Can the US afford to spend weeks marshaling military forces near North Korea if Pyongyang has considerable insight into American troop movements and staging areas, in addition to the capability to strike them? And will policymakers have the luxury of time to plan and react in case an adversary interferes with national satellites and GPS networks, or will such activities cripple our response choices?
So, what could be done? The US government should start work in earnest now across departments and agencies to plan for the downstream effects of the three developments. Officials should incorporate into a wider planning effort, ideally coordinated by the National Security Council, all institutions with relevant experience, such as the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, the Defense Science Board, and cutting-edge researchers such as Darpa. This is essential to formulating a broader comprehension of those challenges, and also to accelerate the work of producing effective countermeasures. And, as hard as it can be, government and the private sector ought to deepen their collaboration, particularly on the topics of automation and data access. Some of the work should be done in close consultation with key allies, many of whom have direct connections to leaders in America and the international commercial sector, and possibly with rivals like China and Russia
In a lot of ways and for understandable reasons (especially the dramatic pace of change), the US and its allies were slow to react to improvements in the cyber realm. Given the importance of these dangers, the US must ensure it is better prepared for the next wave of challenges.
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