A Digital D Day?


Computers Are the Weapons and the Front Line Is Everywhere

By James Adams

Simon & Schuster 366pp $25

The year is 2005. An Iran-backed Islamic fundamentalist sets off bombs in an oil field in China's Tarim Basin, where Beijing has been sending ethnic Chinese from other areas to dilute the region's Moslem population. China retaliates by sinking an Iranian oil tanker and, more ominously, declaring a blockade of the Strait of Malacca, a key passage for oil to Asia.

As the U.S. weighs its options, it realizes it doesn't have the troop strength to step in between the two sides. So it opts for cyberweapons-- electronic Trojan horses inserted years earlier in computers China had imported. Suddenly, Beijing's phones go dead and water to the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric power plant slows to a trickle. Then the President expresses concern about the agricultural crisis near the dam--before Chinese leaders even know a drought exists. They come to understand that the U.S. is exerting some mysterious and formidable powers. And, in accordance with U.S. wishes, the Chinese back away from their confrontation with Iran.

This cyber silver bullet is the culmination of the opening scenario in The Next World War: Computers Are the Weapons and the Front Line Is Everywhere, a first-rate and timely primer on information warfare (IW) by United Press International CEO James Adams. Although Adams is a believer in IW, he concedes it's not really a panacea. Indeed, one of the book's strengths is that Adams candidly discusses not only the promise of IW but also its technical, bureaucratic, and even moral pitfalls.

What, exactly, is information warfare? At its simplest, it's a strategy for undermining the enemy's data and information systems, while defending and exploiting one's own information edge. It includes cutting-edge gizmos such as airborne or space-based sensors that can give a soldier unprecedented knowledge of enemy battlefield positions and guide "smart" weapons to their destination. It extends to stealing an enemy's data and disrupting its networks with viruses. And it involves tracing hostile hackers with an "automated security incident measurement," a scheme that splashes intruders with an electronic identifying marker--without alerting them--thus enabling cybercops to follow them on the Net. Adams, perhaps too ambitiously, goes even further, including discussions of old-fashioned propaganda, nonlethal weaponry, and economic espionage.

The goal is to enable soldiers to inflict lethal damage even as they stay far from the line of fire. Minimizing spilled blood is a critical political requirement in the CNN Age. But there is a debate under way in military circles about whether this "revolution in military affairs" will occur. Anyone who has had a computer crash would worry about risking lives by making troops so dependent on temperamental equipment. Skeptics argue that IW will not fundamentally alter the way in which wars are fought but will merely speed and expand the flow of data to generals and grunts, possibly giving both groups information indigestion. This book can help the public understand this heated debate, which has vast implications for the future of defense budgets and the willingness of political leaders to use force.

As much as Adams focuses on technology, he does not neglect the human element. There's no cybersubstitute for strong, consistent political leadership, for instance, which could make the use of force unnecessary in the first place. Adams argues that such leadership is currently lacking in the No.1 technology nation. He is caustic in his criticism of President Clinton's flip-flops in Haiti and Somalia. Likewise, it's clear that machines can't do every bit of work in tracking down hackers. Computer-savvy cybersleuths, often aided by informants, are necessary for law enforcers to nail intruders. And while information technology can provide oodles of data about what potential enemies are doing, age-old human intelligence is needed to know why they are doing it.

That said, there's no doubt the Pentagon, like the economy, will be increasingly reliant on computers. And that creates a vulnerability that an adversary with inferior conventional forces can exploit. As Adams notes, defenders have to be lucky every time--hackers only once. The Pentagon acknowledges a large number of intrusions into unclassified databases, and Adams repeatedly blasts Washington for doing too little to protect its systems.

The military brass concede that the Defense Dept. lags behind the private sector in many ways. And the Pentagon faces problems getting up to speed. One cause is that large organizations move sluggishly. Another reason for resistance is that IW upsets the status quo and could lead to pink slips for a lot of soldiers. If you can make a country hoist a white flag by using the Internet to take out its utilities, you don't need an army to occupy its land.

Adams notes that a few U.S. military units, such as the Air Force Information War Center and the Fleet Information Warfare Center, take the new approach seriously. But he bemoans the fact that the Pentagon as a whole does not. In fact, that might be an advantage in IW's incubation stage. Little shops such as AFIWC and FIWC have the necessary agility to make progress far faster than a big bureaucracy.

At a later stage though, when IW actually is used, a decentralized approach can be problematic--or even fatal. Assume that a friendly IW operation penetrates an enemy information network and uses it to put out info that advances the friendly cause. Friendly sensors outside the IW unit pick up the data and assume it's really from the enemy. That's not far-fetched--it's exactly what happened when, because of American spy Aldrich Ames, the Soviets turned CIA agents and fed the U.S. false information. The CIA suspected the information was bogus, but to preserve the counterintelligence operation against Ames, did not tell other government agencies. Even more decentralized operations mean greater uncertainty for all sides, with potentially destabilizing effects.

This is one of the issues Adams raises in a fascinating discussion of the morality of IW. He notes that during the last revolution in military affairs--the development of nuclear bombs--the morality of the new weapons was discussed from the outset. There has been no similar debate about IW, but Adams raises several ethical issues. Nukes served as a deterrent that kept the cold war from turning hot. In creating stability and therefore peace, atomic weapons could be seen to have right on their side. IW, in contrast, may create instability and thus raise the risk of conflict. So, it could be argued that there's less of an ethical justification for IW. Similarly, one purpose of IW is to minimize not only troop casualties but also civilian injuries. Yet if you shut down an electricity grid, incubators in hospitals could be turned off, killing babies just as surely as if they had been shelled.

Adams doesn't try to resolve these issues. Nevertheless, it's inevitable that the military of the future will be dependent on IW to a greater or lesser degree. A whole new legal, diplomatic, and strategic framework is needed to deal with it. In this readable, anecdote-filled volume, Adams makes that case cogently.

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