Lowy, Defence and Assange · 16 June 2012

This is from the internet site of the Lowy Institute:

The Lowy Institute is … introducing a new blog feature, Australia’s Defence Challenges. This feature, supported by the Australian Department of Defence, will explore Australia’s defence challenges as the 2013 Defence White Paper planning process begins. Discussion will range across the spectrum of questions facing Australia’s defence policymakers. We will focus especially on these four themes:

Strategic environment: what are the challenges, threats, risks and contingencies the Australian Defence Force may have to face between now and 2035? The future of the Australian Defence Force: what capabilities will Australia need and what are the challenges inherent in preparing for uncertainty with constrained resources? Defence and diplomacy: what are the opportunities and limits of defence engagement with other nations, not only our ally the US but also partners and neighbours? What Australia thinks: what are the views in the wider community, including the business community?

The first non-Lowy Institute contribution to the debate was from Robert Ayson, Director of Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Wellington. Ayson offered ten propositions about the strategic environment which I think the writers of Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper need to keep in mind”:

His proposition 9 was: The development of advanced conventional weapons systems and postures in Asia (especially in the maritime environment) is more significant than nuclear proliferation. There are few signs that the main contributors to this advanced conventional military competition have rules of the game and ideas for restraint. Cyber capabilities will grow without fundamentally altering the balance of power.

I know next-to-nothing about Ayson and next to nothing about cyber warfare, but as a result of reading other blogs (or lack of them) about cyber war on the Lowy site I was almost sure that it was going to be treated in a rather casual way.

In my view, the issue of cyber capabilities should be taken much more seriously. Here are some things to think about:

(1) History shows swings in power over time between the offensive and the defensive (sometimes called the sword and the shield, but think how the defensive power of the machine gun obliterated the offensive power of the horse, and in turn led to the development of the offensive power of the tank). Does, or will, cyber warfare alter this offence-defence balance? Will it in turn lead to further developments (perhaps even in the non-cyber field)?

(2) Or, is cyber capability a sort of leveler—like the six-gun became in the American West when even a skinny weakling could beat a big muscular guy if his reflexes were faster and he could out-draw him! So, how closely will cyber power relate to economic muscle power (which has been a significant determinant of the ability to spend huge amounts of money on ships, planes etc).

(3) Up until now it has been fairly easy to judge who is fighting against you and who is actually supporting you ie who your enemies and allies are and the extent that they are actually doing this. Except is cases of espionage, even people of moderate intelligence could almost always see and hear it with their eyes and ears. With cyber war this may become much less clear? Who is actually attacking you? How much are your supposed allies doing to help you? (And, will governments tell the truth about this—if they know it —to their citizens?)

(4) Will a country’s set of actual/potential enemies and/or allies in cyber war be the same as in a more conventional war of the type up to date? For example, would it always be in the interests of the US to ensure that each of its allies is protected from cyber attack if that attack had desirable flow-on effects on a “enemy” third country. A simple example might be the flow of energy supplies to China.

(5) Does control of geographic areas on the surface of the earth become less or more important? Does control of outer-space become more important? Are space based cyber war assets more vulnerable to attack than those on/under the surface of the earth, and does this bring advantages to some countries more than others?

(6) Does the availability of mechanisms for cyber war impact on the psychology of those making the decisions? Are aggressors more willing to go on the offensive (eg US and Israel against Iran with Stuxnet)? Do the leaders of some countries begin to judge the possibility and implications of being attached in a different way? What are their likely responses?

(7) How vulnerable is Australian to cyber attack? What economic and social disruption could occur? To what extent (and at what cost) can Australia — now and in the future be master of its own destiny in the cyber war field?

(8) Are Australia’s present-day defence strategists and generals up to the task either psychologically or in terms of technical knowledge — of making such assessments? Is a man or women who likes to be in uniform (and thinks a lot about guns, bravery and comradeship) almost intrinsically incapable of highly innovative or lateral thought, or of productive imagination? Are they capable of recognizing or accepting such attributes in others?

(9) Are relevant technology experts presently working in normal business and government organizations up to the task of offering defence against cyber attack? Would Julian Assange, and some other individualistic cyberspace experts be better at evaluating the possible threats, and designing defences?

(10) Should Assange be made an adviser to the Australian Defence Department? (As a bonus, he might even be able to contribute some — much needed — intelligent thoughts outside the cyber capability sphere.)