Brandishing Our Air, Space, and Cyber Swords

By Reith, Lt Col Mark | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Brandishing Our Air, Space, and Cyber Swords


Reith, Lt Col Mark, Air & Space Power Journal


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed or implied in the Journal are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government. This article may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. If it is reproduced, the Air and Space Power Journal requests a courtesy line.

The United States has arrived at a historic crossroads for space and cyber. For decades, space and cyber have been treated as neutral territory or part of a global commons, but the rise of competitors and the commoditizing of technology within these domains have drastically changed the calculus of strategic deterrence. One road takes the United States down the path of massive and time-intensive investments into hardened and resilient systems with no guarantee that next-generation technology will be any more resistant to crafty attackers than the last.

Another road takes the United States down the path of multidomain offensive capabilities to create multiple dilemmas that overwhelm and hold the adversary at risk, but the efficacy of this approach across a range of actors is unknown. Yet just beyond the technical horizon, we face the implications of science fiction in motion as new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and weaponized lasers are developed and fielded against a disturbing backdrop of world events.1 Consider the Russian-Ukrainian cyber conflict playing out across the fabric of society, including utilities, mass media, and finance, and all while the international community fails to establish intervention redlines as malware spills beyond the borders of the conflict.2

Strategic deterrence in the 21st century is much bigger than nuclear deterrence was in the 20th century. The US military is still "catching up" to this new deterrence reality and having a robust discussion on what deterrence means in today's global threat landscape.

-Gen John Hyten, USAF

Commander, US Strategic Command

Conflict may occur along the spectrum at any point, in varying degrees of intensity, with more than one adversary, and in multiple domains. At all phases. . . our planning and operations are designed to deter and develop "off ramps" to de-escalate the conflict. . . while dissuading our adversaries from considering the use of cyber attacks, counterspace activities, or nuclear weapons.

-Adm Cecil D. Haney, USN

Former Commander, US Strategic Command

Furthermore, ponder North Korea's offset strategy to hold conventional American forces at risk with nuclear weapons while employing asymmetrical tools with a clear intent and resolve to challenge US hegemony.3 As we grapple with this dynamic environment, we find ourselves at the precipice of the next revolution in military affairs, and our next investments will heavily influence our future options.

This article examines how the nation could better prepare to deter aggressive action in space and cyberspace, and if necessary, prevail should deterrence fail. The key themes throughout this article include a strong need for space and cyber situational awareness, the need for an international attribution and escalation framework, and a national investment in space and cyber education, along with an updated national strategy and military doctrine. Although related, this article focuses on deterrence and avoids the topic of cyber coercion.

Problematic Assumptions in the Strategic Deterrence Framework

Deterrence prevents adversary action through the presentation of a credible threat of counteraction. In both peace and war, the Armed Forces of the United States help to deter adversaries from using violence to reach their aims. Deterrence stems from an adversary's belief that a credible threat of retaliation exists, the contemplated action cannot succeed, or the costs outweigh the perceived benefits of acting. …

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