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China’s cyber-generals are reinventing the art of war

Five Chinese military officials are redefining how we think about cyberwar. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The conventional wisdom is that the future of war will involve private robot armies, predator drones carrying out precision strikes, and maybe even the militarization of space. All of this assumes, however, that the fundamental nature of war does not change, only the technological sophistication with which we wage this war. And, contrary to just about any military text dating back to the era of Sun Tzu, it also assumes that we always know who our enemies are.

That’s why the current high-profile tussle over Chinese cyberattacks is so fascinating. The White House’s recent condemnation of Chinese cyberspying is just the clearest signal to date that we have entered a new era of warfare. Instead of tallying costs in terms of dead and wounded, we now measure them in purely economic terms. Instead of a known enemy, we now have a shadowy assailant who, on the surface, is still our friend. For every claim by the United States that the Chinese have gone beyond mere spying for national security to include ruthless appropriation of commercial secrets, there is a counterclaim by China that the United States has been using the NSA as its own kind of global surveillance state.

Yes, nations still fight wars, but it’s in a totally new and different way.

When the new paradigm for the world is economic power rather than military power, it means that we will find ways to fight without destroying our economic relationships. Traditional warfare is very expensive, requiring massive buildups and drains on the state treasury for military campaigns in far-flung locales. The new warfare will be cheap, low-intensity and most likely, waged primarily in cyberspace. Attacks will occur against economic targets rather than military targets. Taking down a stock market or a currency has greater tactical value than taking out a hardened military target.

You can blame many factors for this. The relentless pace of globalization has created interconnections between all economies of the world and blurred the line between “national” and “multinational” companies. The reach of the global Internet means that digital targets (say, a nation’s grid) are now just as important as physical targets. And, in an increasingly multi-polar world, there are no longer two clear sides, good vs. evil. It’s a global free-for-all. It’s not so much ideology that matters as the ability to reassure investors about the viability of your financial markets.

For better or worse, cyberwarfare represents a new form of warfare, in which our ostensible friends – such as the Chinese – are also our shadow enemies.  For every economic deal we sign with them, they may be busy undermining the very companies that make these deals possible. For every company that goes public on our stock market, there is a shadowy cyber outpost like 61398 searching for ways to bring that stock market to its knees.

And it’s not just the Chinese and Americans who are recognizing this new future of warfare. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Peter Pomerantsev highlighted what he called a new theory of “non-linear war” being tested by Russia as it searches for an advantage in the post-Cold War era. Pointing to a recent fictional story written under a pseudonym by one of Vladimir Putin’s close advisors (just as George Kennan’s famous 1947 “Containment” article was written under a pseudonym), Pomerantsev lays out exactly how such a non-linear war works. Alliances shift in mid-battle. War is only part of a broader process that nobody truly understands.

The only question that remains, of course, is how the high-level thinkers at West Point or the Naval Academy or the Pentagon propose to fight this war. We’ve seen the first round of response from the Justice Department, in the form of indictments against five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. We’ve heard President Obama outline his vision of a world where more effort must be taken to counter asymmetric threats from terrorist groups. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. Army Cyber Command will sit around at their computers, especially since we keep hearing about a massive buildup of America’s cyber capabilities.

But if you’re expecting something along the lines of a conventional war, with a clear beginning and end, think again. The future of war is all about low-grade, low-intensity attacks in cyberspace, all easily disavowed. Instead of one big cyber Pearl Harbor, maybe it’s just a lot of tiny little Pearl Harbors. It is the ultimate asymmetric war in which we do not even know who to attack, or how or when. A group of hackers with nicknames like “Ugly Gorilla” and “KandyGoo” now have the ability to inflict hundreds of millions dollars of damage using just their computers. Who can doubt that shadowy non-states also are searching for the ability to bring superpowers to their knees not militarily, but economically?

It almost sounds like something out of a science fiction novel  — nations locked in a state of perpetual war, fought by shadowy assailants in cyberspace who may or may not be allied with a particular state, using weapons that are virtually undetectable,  with the ability to take down a nation with a single keystroke from a remote location. Yes, the mounting cyberwar with China is nothing less than the future of war. The new war has no official start, no official end, and no official enemy. There are only “evolving threats.” War is everywhere, and yet nowhere because it is completely digital, existing only in the ether.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.



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