Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Question for Trekkies: Should the US become a Cyber Organia?

A Star Trek (Original Series, as if there were any other) episode, “Errand of Mercy” jumped to mind when reading this piece “Cool War” by John Arquilla concerning the future of cyber. Arquilla speculates as to the future of warfare (politics by ‘other’ means) as human societies are simultaneously moving toward increased reliance on networked computers to run things, while also increasing capabilities in creation of coded weapons (viruses, worms and the like) that can be injected into the networks for purposes or roles that have historically been undertaken by human agents. He canvases recent developments (cyber espionage and sabataage)..

.. and extrapolates into the future. The gist: as time and abilities progress, resort to actual kinetic warfare will be less necessary in the service of politics. He notes that we have already seen- in the transition from 20th to 21st Century - warfare go small scale. Additionally, the development of drone warfare, and remote sensing of a high degree of discrimination and sophistication is making resort to the ‘ham handed’ option of conventional large scale kinetic warfare less often necessary for conducting ‘politics by other means.’ There are now some seriously effective non-lethal ‘other means’ as viable options when it comes to implementation political ends. Arquilla suggest it may become the case that resort to kinetics will become rare in the distant future:
The bargain made when "cyber" and "war" came together need not turn out to be Faustian. This story can still have a happy ending: As war becomes "cooler," mankind's future may edge a bit closer to the utopian end that all of us, secretly or not so secretly, truly desire.
So, naturally, this futurist stuff forces you to think Star Trek TOS ( Or, at least, you think Trek when you read something like this, from a bit earlier in the piece):
The good news is that a preemptive cyber-attack on the military command-and-control systems of two countries getting ready to fight a "real war" might give each side pause before going into the fight. In this instance, the hackers mounting such attacks should probably publicize their actions -- perhaps even under U.N. auspices -- lest the disputants think it was the enemy who had crippled their forces, deepening their mutual antagonism. There are no doubt some risks in having a third party mount a preemptive cyber-attack of this sort -- but the risks are acceptable when weighed against the chance of averting a bloody war.
"Errand of Mercy” folks. Errand of Mercy:

Entire episode right cheer.

Plotline: War has broken out between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. Kirk and Spock are tasked with approaching the leadership of a planet “Organia” that is caught in the midst of the conflict. It is pacifistic, backward, in need of protection, and most importantly, located at a strategically important spot. Well, the Organians have no interest in aid from the Feds, and the ruling council tries to assure a bewildered Kirk and Spock that they are really in no danger. The Klingons show up, Kirk and Spock go undercover, while the Klingons take the planet with no resistance. Kor, the Klingon commander, sporting a nifty Fu-Manchu-stache, takes a liking to Kirk (posing as a native) because he isn’t a constantly smiling passive weenie like the rest of the Organians. Kirk and Spock, trying to stir things up, conduct sabataage, blowing up a Klingon munitions dump. They are discovered arrested, imprisoned, and released by the weenie Organian head man, who is mysteriously able to do so without detection by Klingons. They return to the Organian ruling council chambers. Kor is heard on a PA system threating to and then killing hundreds of Organians in order to force them to produce Kirk and Spock. The passive weenies don’t care that their folks are being killed. Kirk and Spock are non-plussed and leave. They make their way into the Klingon HQ, thinking that by doing so, and taking Kor, they will inspire some resistance from the organo-Weenies. The Klingons and Feds are on the verge of full warfare, ships closing in on one another. Kor and Kirk are looking forward to the fight. At that point the weenie council comes into Kor’s office to break things up. They make use of something suspiciously like an Active Denial System, but lacking the big ray gun, to make all weapons too hot to touch.

Only at this point do the weenies reveal themselves, disabling the combatants; lecturing Kirk and Kor about killing on the large scale; and putting on a heck of a 60s light show as they dissolve their humanoid bodies revealing their astral, pure- energy, light-being, semi-divine status. They impose a peace treaty on the backward humanoids, and promise they’ll be watching the Klingons and Feds, who will eventually become ‘fast friends.’ (Fu-Man Kor ain’t bitin’ on that last prediction.)

The Arquilla piece forces the following question, I think:

Assuming (as some experts maintain) that the US is able to maintain a substantial lead in cyber sophistication, might we consider taking on a role that is essentially a technological but less-weenie version of the role taken on by the Organians? Arquilla considers the possibility, within the context of a cyber-arms-race:
The question that confronts us today is whether to yield to the attractions of cyberwar. We have come out of one of mankind's bloodiest centuries, and are already in an era in which wars are smaller -- if still quite nasty. Now we have the chance to make even these conflicts less lethal. And in reality, there may be no option. Once the first network or nation takes this path -- as some observers believe the United States is doing -- others will surely follow, starting a new arms race, this time not in weaponry, but in clandestine and devastating programs like Stuxnet and the Flame virus.

It is a curious irony that the United States, a power traditionally reluctant to go to war but furious in its waging, is now seemingly shifting gears. It is becoming a nation with the capability to go to war easily, while at the same time far less ferociously. Is this an improvement? Perhaps. Delaying Iranian proliferation with bits and bytes seems far superior to the costs and risks that would be incurred, and the human suffering inflicted, by trying to achieve such effects with bombs and bullets.

But looking ahead, how will Americans respond when others begin to employ cyber means to achieve their ends, perhaps even by attacking us? After all, Stuxnet escaped from that Iranian facility into the wild, and is certainly being studied, reverse engineered and tweaked by many around the world. No country may be foolish enough to engage the incomparable U.S. military in open battle, but we seem like fairly easy pickings to the computer mice that may soon roar. Despite all these concerns, though, a cool war world will be a better place to live in than its Cold War predecessor. Yes, conflict will continue in the years to come, but it will morph in ways that make our self-destruction as a civilization less likely -- even if it means living with occasional disruptions to vulnerable high-tech systems.
As the first paragraph holds out, this less kinetic warfare is attractive, but the question is not so much whether or not we should 'yield' to it, for, as the paragraph also says, it is inevitable the technology will be developed. The real questions: What use we will put it to? How will it figure into our decision making? What efforts we will make to maintain a substantial superiority in cyber capabilities (as we have successfully done in the conventional realm since WWII)? 

It should be quite the selling point for the Organian approach that it is considerably less expensive not only in lives, but treasure, given the realities of the fiscal situation of the US government. While it may be true that the lack of casualties may tempt us to use such modern means as cyber more often, (as some seem to fret), isn't that precisely as it should be? Old fashioned kinetic war is supposed to be a means of last resort because of the carnage it reaps. Cyber-operations may perhaps be war, and may best be conceptualized as steps taken before the last resort to old-fashioned war. Perhaps the term 'cyber war' is a misnomer? Better that we use '"cyber sabataage" perhaps? And, how about use of drones? Is that war? War Lite? To a certain extent, all of this is a matter of semantics. What we choose to call things should not mask the moral dimensions of their use, nor the need for careful calculus. What both these means can do, however, is be among the lesser-of-evils tools that the US government can resort to when dealing with recalcitrant enemies, before they resort to the one option that brings about large scale carnage; conventional old-fashioned war. However, if we are to be the Cyber Organians, no meelie-mouthed-weenie behavior, and no robes allowed!