Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Strategic Fragility: Infrastructure Protection and National Security in the Information Age

Academic journal article Defense Horizons

Strategic Fragility: Infrastructure Protection and National Security in the Information Age

Article excerpt


Modern societies have reached unprecedented levels of prosperity, yet they remain vulnerable to a wide range of possible disruptions. One significant reason for this growing vulnerability is the developed world's reliance on an array of interlinked, interdependent critical infrastructures that span nations and even continents. The advent of these infrastructures over the past few decades has resulted in a tradeoff: the United States has gained greater productivity and prosperity at the risk of greater exposure to widespread systemic collapse. The trends that have led to this growing strategic fragility show no sign of slowing. As a result, the United States faces a new and different kind of threat to national security.

This paper explores the factors that are creating the current situation. It examines the implications of strategic fragility for national security and the range of threats that could exploit this condition. Finally, it describes a variety of response strategies that could help address this issue. The challenges associated with strategic fragility are complex and not easily resolved. However, it is evident that policymakers will need to make difficult choices soon; delaying important decisions is itself a choice, and one that could produce disastrous results.

Faustian Bargains

Developed societies around the world face an unexpected paradox: though wealthy beyond the dreams of earlier generations and able to call forth vast resources and project influence across the globe, they face threats and dangers that did not exist a few decades ago. During the past half-century, global integration has accelerated significantly. A growing number of nations and regions have been incorporated into the international economy, which now depends on a set of interconnected critical infrastructures that in many cases extend far beyond national boundaries and are controlled by an increasingly elaborate information grid. Information has become both instantaneous and ubiquitous; it often seems that very little happens anywhere that is not known within a few hours everywhere. In many cases, these critical infrastructures are the keys to our prosperity. We depend on them. But they can break--or be broken.

The development of these linked infrastructures and interdependencies has taken place with astonishing rapidity. They have emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, within the past few decades. The result is revolutionary.

An excellent example of this change is in merchant shipping. For many, the word seaport conjures up an image of sailors and longshoremen swarming over cargo-strewn piers, but that world no longer exists. Almost all of the longshoremen are gone, as are most of the merchant sailors. Many once-bustling ports have shrunk, their piers replaced by office buildings, condominiums, entertainment centers, restaurants, parks, and other amenities of the modern city.

The major reason for this transformation has been the advent of containerized shipping. (1) Almost unknown half a century ago, containers are now the primary method for moving finished goods around the world. In a sense, containers have made globalization possible. Not so long ago, the cost of transportation was a significant part of the total cost of any product, which was why so many factories were located near their ultimate customers. Now, the cost of transportation has dropped precipitously and businesses can move their operations far from customers--even across a continent or ocean--and still be competitive with businesses only a few miles from the point of sale.

Within little more than a generation, the old way of handling freight--break-bulk loading of goods stacked on pallets onto small merchant ships by gangs of longshoremen--has become as antiquated as oxcarts and almost as rare. Approximately 90 percent of the world's trade in non-bulk goods is transported in cargo containers. …

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