The U.S. is searching for ways to deter, defend against and respond to ever-increasing cyber attacks and more diverse terrorist threats, even as it tries to cut spending and finance weapons conceived during the Cold War.
That consensus emerged from a daylong Bloomberg Government conference yesterday that featured senior U.S. lawmakers, defense analysts and military officials.
While the world may be safer than it was at the height of the Cold War, when the superpowers were on a constant hair-trigger alert, threats such as cyber attacks and terrorism are more complex and difficult to detect and trace than a Soviet missile test was, participants said. In addition, the U.S. faces stiffer economic and technological competition from nations such as China.
“Cyber espionage is stealing America’s future,” Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said. Cyber attacks are increasing exponentially while also becoming more sophisticated and destructive, according to the Michigan Republican.
Instead of simply blocking access to a website, newer cyber threats “can break your machine,” he said. “We’re talking about a complete loss of information. That’s a whole new ballgame.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, a public policy group in Washington, said the U.S. needs a doctrine on cyber activities to explain its policy more clearly and spell out “where we won’t go” to avoid giving legitimacy to attacks by other nations and groups.
O’Hanlon also said he worries “that in the absence of legislation, the private sector will under-prepare for cyber attacks.”
Even as the U.S. tries to detect increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, it must root out terrorist groups from Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and even Latin America, said Michael Chertoff, who was secretary of homeland security in President George W. Bush’s administration.
“Latin America is underappreciated” as a center for terrorism, said Chertoff, chairman of the Chertoff Group.
“These transnational groups are becoming more and more powerful,” Chertoff said. Deciding how severe a threat each group poses can be difficult, he said.
“The line between a criminal group and a transnational terror group is a very fine line,” he said.
The U.S. also is struggling over strategy to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, as a debate among analysts at the conference underscored.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the U.S. needs to devise “fear-inducing measures” to make Iranian’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei understand his choice is “a bomb or his own regime’s survival.”
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the escalation in rhetoric and economic sanctions has only allowed Iran’s nuclear program to grow while “decimating” the country’s middle class.
“We’re about to have a major crisis as far as Iranian nuclear weapons are concerned,” Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at the conference. “The world is rapidly changing, and the world requires American leadership.”
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the committee, said that “the military option needs to be kept on the table because that’s an additional pressure point.”
Meeting new security challenges under tight budget pressures will be more difficult because of ballooning cost overruns in weapons programs, such as Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter jet and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.’s new Ford-class aircraft carrier, McCain said.
“The American people should be more angry than they are” about runaway weapons costs, he said.
For all the complexity of the new global dangers, several of the analysts said the world is safer today than it was before the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
“The world’s plenty dangerous, but people who want to make the Cold War sound like the good old days are forgetting their history,” said O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institution analyst. “On balance, the world of 2012 is a much safer place to live than the world in 1962 or 1972 or probably even 1982.”
Christopher Preble, a defense analyst at the Cato Institute, a policy research group in Washington, said military spending today is about equal to the level in the Reagan-era buildup of the 1980’s, when adjusted for inflation.
“We’re in a much stronger position today than we were 40 or 50 years ago,” Preble said.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, disputed that assessment, citing testimony from military service chiefs who have warned about growing dangers in the era of cyber warfare and terrorism.