During the past several years, in my capacity as deputy director and then acting director of national intelligence, I have participated in National Security Council meetings about immediate challenges, from North Korea’s aggressive missile and nuclear development programs to Russian military operations along its borders, and from ISIS threats to the homeland to Chinese activity in the South China Sea.
Michael Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former acting director of national intelligence. The author is an employee of the US government on a sponsored fellowship, but all opinions are those of the author and do not reflect the official views of the US government.
Even in instances in which the threat the US confronted was especially complex, there was at least a familiar policy playbook of options, as well as a shared understanding of how to approach these crises. However, in today’s dynamic security landscape, it’s fair to ask whether US policymakers might soon be forced to grapple with a new series of threats for which we have no common understanding or carefully considered counter-measures.
Three emerging trends will significantly alter our security environment in the coming years and are worthy of careful review.
First, consider the growth in automation, and the automated car market specifically. Industry projections are that a large share of the automobile market—several million cars—will be self-driving by 2030. It isn’t hard to imagine how terrorist groups or ill-intentioned state actors could adapt this technology in frightening ways.
After all, how difficult is it to turn a driverless car into a driverless car bomb? The almost inevitable growth in the automation of planes, trains, buses, ships, and unmanned aerial vehicles will offer nefarious actors myriad opportunities to tamper with control and navigation systems, potentially affording them the chance to cause a mass casualty event without having anyone present at the scene of the attack. Imagine a worst case scenario in which we experience a 9/11–type attack—but without any actual hijackers.
A corollary challenge is the advent and growth of autonomous weapons. While the US military has tight (and legal) restrictions in place to assure that a human is always involved in the final decision to fire such a weapon, it’s not certain that other countries that develop these systems in the future—and more than a dozen already have them in the works—will be as willing or able to enforce this level of control. This opens the door to an array of possible threats, including the risk that someone with ill will could hack a weapon and use it to attack critical infrastructure, including hospitals, bridges, or dams.
This threat is sufficiently credible that Elon Musk and a group of more than 100 leaders in the robotics and artificial intelligence community recently called on the United Nations to ban the development of autonomous weapons. While this is a noble sentiment and one I would endorse, the history of weapons development suggests that a ban has little chance of succeeding.
A second underappreciated threat is the proliferation of sophisticated conventional weapons and capabilities. For most of the past three decades, the US has been able to project military force virtually uncontested throughout the world, with minimal risk. Today, with the proliferation of precision-guided missiles of extended range, coupled with advanced tracking systems that are easily available to both state and non-state actors, that era is fast coming to an end.
Consider the situation we currently face off the coast of Yemen in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. A critical shipping lane between Europe and Asia, the Strait is only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point. US ships operating in these waters are now within the range of sophisticated missiles fired not by a central government, but from Houthi rebels (equipped with Iranian-provided technology) and enabled by commercially available radar systems that can be used to track our ships.
Meanwhile, there are now multiple countries and non-state actors, including ISIS and Hezbollah, that are operating drones over the battle space in Iraq and Syria, a development that would have been inconceivable only a decade ago. In fact, ISIS’s use of armed drones against Iraqi security forces earlier this year delayed their advance on Mosul, highlighting the unfortunate reality that the use of unmanned aerial platforms will be a feature in almost all future conflicts.
A third emerging threat is the steady erosion of the US’s advantage in the area 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 remote parts of the world. I have personally witnessed multiple crises in which the US president knew more about the situation inside a country than the leader of that country. However, the explosion of access to information through various forms of commercially available technology is beginning to chip away at that advantage.
As the current national intelligence officer for military affairs, Anthony Schinella, once remarked to me, during the 1991 Gulf War the US was able to move the entire 18th Airborne Corps across what was believed to be an impassable roadless desert and achieve a decisive battlefield victory in large part because the US had two technologies that the Iraqi Army did not: overhead imagery and GPS. Today, many elementary school-age children have both on their phones.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that an average person in many parts of the world can now get on the internet and within an hour purchase a small drone, GPS guidance system, and high-resolution camera, and thereby have the ability to acquire information that would have been unthinkable even a generation ago, including on US military bases and critical weapons storage sites.
Meanwhile, the dramatic growth in end-to-end encryption technology in the private sector is making it easier for both terrorists and states to mask their communication, significantly reducing our ability to understand their planning and operational cycles.
The erosion of the American advantage in the information domain will influence both our decision-making process and timeline for military action. Can the US really afford to spend weeks marshaling military forces near North Korea if Pyongyang has considerable insight into American troop movements and staging areas, as well as the ability to strike them? And will policymakers have the luxury of time to plan and respond if an adversary interferes with domestic satellites and GPS networks, or will such actions cripple our response options?
So, what can be done? The US government should begin work in earnest now across agencies and departments to plan for the downstream effects of these three developments. Officials should integrate into a broader planning effort, ideally coordinated by the National Security Council, all institutions with relevant expertise, including the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, the Defense Science Board, and cutting-edge research agencies like Darpa. This is critical to formulating a broader understanding of these challenges, and to accelerate the work of creating effective countermeasures. And, as difficult as it can be, government and the private sector should deepen their cooperation, especially on the topics of automation and information access. Some of this work should be done in close consultation with key allies, many of whom already have direct ties to leaders in the US and the global commercial sector, and potentially with rivals such as China and Russia
In many ways and for understandable reasons (especially the dramatic pace of change), the US and its allies were slow to respond to developments in the cyber realm. Given the significance of these threats, the US must ensure it’s better prepared for the next wave of challenges.
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