Warfare has always been about exerting political will. In the most basic way, that’s accomplished by one side inflicting enough pain on the other to compel them to acquiesce—and technology has always played a key role in doing that. The Greek phalanx, the crossbow, the cannon, poison gas: all introduced new, powerful methods of destruction on the battlefield and fundamentally changed the way war was fought.
Today, however, science and technology are being used to exert political will far from the traditional battlefield. Adversaries are exploiting space, cyberattacks, biology and other emerging technologies to significantly disrupt the systems underpinning our society—including telecommunications infrastructure, power grids, public health systems, transportation systems and financial institutions. In short, an adversary can gain advantage without ever firing a shot.
In some ways, these “new” types of attacks are anything but. The world’s first cyberattack occurred in 1834, when two French bankers hacked the government’s mechanical telegraph system, allowing them to get information about the markets far in advance of their competitors. Then there was the bio attack by the Mongol army in 1346, when it catapulted plague-infected cadavers into the besieged city of Caffa (now Feodosia, Ukraine) to spread the Black Death among its enemies.
But what has changed is the scale and speed of technology. For example, for a group to have a presence in space no longer requires billions of dollars and a nation-state sponsor. Small satellites that cost only a few thousand dollars can hitch rides on rockets into low Earth orbit for a remarkably low fee. These lunchbox-sized (and smaller) satellites hold enormous potential for national security. Space has become essential infrastructure. It is the hub for everything from GPS to communications, and our reliance on it has spurred a sense of urgency to both protect our space assets and make our infrastructure more resilient. Small satellites can aid in that by bolstering the nation’s GPS satellites or helping troops communicate in remote areas. But their affordability makes them easily accessible to terrorist groups and other enemy organizations as well.
Cybercrime is another threat that can wreak havoc on a grand scale in a matter of minutes. The WannaCry computer virus infected 200,000 computers across 150 countries and shut down hospitals in the United Kingdom last year. In 2008, a flash drive containing malicious computer code created by a foreign intelligence agency was uploaded to a network run by the U.S. Central Command, infecting both classified and unclassified systems and allowing for the transfer of data to foreign servers.
While weaponizing diseases has proven more difficult, the anthrax attack in 2001 that killed five people, infected 17 more and caused nationwide alarm is a reminder of the potential for a bio attack to kill and disrupt. This year, Germany arrested a man on suspicion of planning a ricin attack. As Bill Gates recently noted, even something as seemingly mundane as the flu could be weaponized, killing millions and hobbling the world’s economy. In addition, our ability to manipulate genes—while promising when applied to searching for cures to previously incurable diseases—also has the potential to be weaponized. What if a nation could make its own population immune to a disease while the rest of the world is still defenseless?
Because weakness in any of these areas can leave our nation vulnerable, our continued security lies in keeping our science and technology a step ahead.
In space, we must be quick and agile to outpace our adversaries or risk losing our superiority in that domain. Developing new, small satellites is part of that strategy, but so is continuing to develop better fuels for long-term exploration, and better technologies to improve communications and optical sensors that can provide key intelligence information.
Cyberattacks can be thwarted through improved encryption and other tools. In 2016, China launched the world’s first hack-proof communications satellite—using quantum encryption—and stoked fears that the U.S. is falling behind in the cybersecurity race. In fact, the U.S. has the same capability with unhackable quantum encryption tools developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory; they just haven’t been deployed on the same scale as in China. Broader adoption of quantum encryption in the U.S. would enhance our security.
Protecting against biowarfare starts with understanding the movement of diseases through populations. We’re using artificial intelligence to combine satellite imagery with social media posts and online searches about diseases to help predict outbreaks before they become epidemic. In the case of a bio attack, early warning could stem the disease spread and save thousands of lives. We need to stop thinking about warfare as only lines on a map, firepower and territory. Our nation’s scientists and engineers are now, in many ways, on the front lines. To successfully deter our adversaries and keep our nation safe, we must maintain a scientific and technical advantage in these new arenas of combat. Our future depends on it.