Speculations on Armed Conflict

In a Time of Free Silicon


Chapter 7


Many of the capabilities that the United States has laboriously constructed to support its Mesh are becoming available to others for fee on the Net. Yet the development of the Net, in general, still favors U.S. security interests.

As long as the power of information technology doubles every two to three years, it will continue to be have a disproportionate effect on the evolution of national security. The emergence of meshes -- with their dispersed sensors, emitters, microbots, and miniprojectiles -- will drastically hasten the effective retirement of platforms. Thus habits of power based on the differential possession of these items will have to be replaced by habits born of a different calculus.

For the time being, it is difficult to recall a time when the gap between the world's greatest power -- which happens to be the United States -- and whoever is number two has been so large. To some extent our unipolar superiority has reflected our economic power. If economics were the only cause, however, the nontrivial likelihood that China and Japan could both enjoy national incomes in excess of ours in a decade or two should deservedly given us considerable pause. Fortunately, our superiority is based on more than money; the United States clearly retains the military capital, infrastructure, institutions, and habits that come with being, by a larger margin, the world's leading military superpower.

Yet all these factors rest, in turn, on our superiority at fielding a platform-based military. If platforms go, would our power advantage follow? Not necessarily. In many ways the United States has an even more impressive lead in information- based warfare, and our relative superiority in software (both technical and cultural) is putatively ours to lose.

As the discussion above, however, suggests, all this has a catch. To wit, the large lead the United States has built up in information warfare has been as a result of a large DOD- financed information infrastructure -- the Mesh, to date. Many of the capabilities of this infrastructure, via extension or duplication, will become available to the Net and thus to anyone for far smaller sums then the United States has laid out over the years.

Examples abound, as earlier passages have suggested. DOD put up a fleet of GPS satellites but now anyone can access them by purchasing a GPS receiver. True, DOD has the capability to degrade the signal reaching anyone without the right combinations, but others are developing methods to go around such restrictions (e.g., differential GPS). Many of our space reconnaissance capabilities can be duplicated by anyone with enough money to purchase images from foreign observation satellites. Thanks to the boom in environmental monitoring, the number of surveillance birds increases by the year. The global internet extends everywhere, permitting any attached country to carry information over borders and in very large quantities. The encryption formerly available only to those with sophisticated computers can be a routine feature of all communications gear within a decade or two. Global cellular communications based on several satellite proposals (e.g., Motorola's Iridium) can be the command and control apparatus of any group that can pay the bills (or have some ostensible neutral pay the bills). The same system used for civilian air traffic control can be adapted to military command and control very easily. When fifty seven (or five hundred) channels becomes ubiquitous from direct broadcast satellites or cellular video, interposing our own video streams in exclusive place of someone else's becomes quite problematic.

The point is not that DOD cannot shut off access to such services. It can, but at a cost which, in political terms, grows more expensive every year. Most of the genies are out of the bottle. Short of a war that puts the survival of the United States or its large allies at risk, DOD will be politically constrained. Yet that is precisely the most probable environment that DOD faces through the next two decades.

In the long run, however, the Net may enhance our national security. The emergence of transnational communities made possible by the Net should inhibit the dominance of human monocultures in tomorrow's national security environment. Conversely, however, the decline of constraints on human behavior coming from traditional cultures portend a rise in urban anomie which verge on the anarchic.

The future of national security in a time of free silicon is that war becomes peace. Threats of mass destruction will remain difficult to control for precise ends. These aside, those who go outside the law to threaten states succeed precisely to the extent that they play at the margins of security regimes. Like any good disease, they resemble contaminants that the society chooses not to differentiate from legitimate proteins. Societies repel such forces through double filtration. The gross filter determines the proper balance between freedom and ultimate security (as too little freedom is the surest underminer of security). The fine filters finds ever more sophisticated ways to differentiate legitimate users from illegitimate intruders.

Information technology, ironically, restores man to the center of the struggle for national security -- where he was before the machines started taking over. Realms of conflict where machines reign supreme -- space, air, sea, deserts, and plains (roughly in that order) -- will be the first in which the large and complex are brought down by the small and the many. Realms where machines availed little -- mountains, forests, jungles, cities, and face-to-face interactions (again, roughly in that order) are also where the meshes will have smaller and later influence. There, the individual warrior retains the advantage. With unconventional warfare, where warfighting machines are virtually useless, these nets are precisely the point of maximum vulnerability for both sides.