AUSA: The word “cyber” is everywhere these days. It’s an all-purpose adjective slapped onto any concept to attract money and make it sound sexier, from cyberwar tocyberschoolbus to, well, cybersex. (We are not making that last term a link). Cyber and SOF – the Special Operations Forces – are the only parts of the Pentagon budget that keep growing while everything else shrinks. But there’s a dirty little secret about cyber, one that the leaders of the Army, the Marine Corps, and special operators have seized on as essential to keeping old-fashioned ground troops relevant in the information age.
So what’s the secret? We all know that more and more of our lives – from banking to buying books, from sharing recipes to managing the electrical grid – now happen in cyberspace. But what most people don’t realize is that cyberspace itself isn’t in cyberspace. Everything “cyber” – every email, every online bank account, every 90th level Tauren Druid, every streaming video from PornTube or a Predator drone – is composed of zeroes and ones that physically exist somewhere: as radio waves rippling invisibly through the air over a wireless network, as pulses of light in a fiber optic cable running under the sea, or, most often, as electrical impulses in a tiny transistor in a computer.
Guess where most of those components are physically located? On land. Guess where all the human beings who use cyberspace, from hackers to housewives, actually live? They’re on land.
“The enemy’s will, that ultimate center of gravity, remains tied to the ground upon which he sits, upon which he blogs, and to the dirt under his feet,” said Adm. William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who heads Special Operations Command (SOCOM), speaking Wednesday at the Association of the Army’s annual conference here. “We can launch a hundred TLAMs [Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles], a thousand TLAMS, and I’m not sure that’s going to fundamentally change the enemy’s will,” McRaven said.
Cyberspace operations don’t eliminate the need for ground troops any more than precision-guided missiles do, the admiral went on. In a whirlwind tour of Robert Kaplan’s book The Revenge of Geography – as well as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Giulio Douhet, the three seminal theorists of land, sea, and air warfare respectively – McRaven warned: “Some of the strategists, some of the futurists, want to point to the importance of the social media and the blogosphere and the self-synchronizing organizations” – for example, the Twitter-coordinated protests of the Arab Spring – ”but the fact is geography, terrain, matters.”
“People have to live somewhere and that somewhere to them is important[:] The land has historical and cultural significance, strategic value,” McRaven said. “If we forget that, then geography will have its revenge.”
The Navy admiral was speaking to an Army conference because SOCOM has joined a tri-service initiative called “Strategic Landpower.” Alongside him on the panel were the relatively quiet assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. John Paxton (the Commandant, Gen. James Amos, was at a 30th anniversary memorial of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut) and the Army’s passionately voluble Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Odierno.
Most of the limited media coverage of the event, including the official Army News Service story, emphasized Odierno’s shot across the bow of those who would slash old-fashioned ground forces to free up funds for air, sea, space, and cyber. “There are a lot of intellectuals out there who believe land power is obsolete,” he said. “It is naïve and in fact, in my mind, it is a dangerous thought.” US News even headlined its story “Army Chief Chafes at New Reliance on Technology.”
But Odierno’s full argument, which was backed up forcefully by McRaven, is considerably subtler and more interesting. “There are three things that I think intersect,” Odierno said. “I’m not sure quite how they intersect yet – what it means tactically, operationally, and strategically,” he added with his typical frankness, “but I know they are intersecting”: human beings, the online world in which humans increasingly interact with one another, and the physical terrain on which they live.
“The intersection of land domain, the human domain, and the cyber domain in the future is really important for us to be successful in the future security environment,” Odierno lamented, “and yet nobody wants to talk about it.”
Information technology is changing that security environment in ways that go far beyond precision-guided missiles and command-and-control networks. When I first went into Iraq [in 2003], I don’t know the exact number, but there was like a thousand cell phones in Iraq, and that was all in the leadership of Iraq,” Odierno said. “When we left [in 2011], there was millions and millions.”
In Afghanistan, Adm. McRaven added, “as the cellphones began to proliferate, we thought, well we don’t want the enemy talking, so we’re going to knock down the cell towers. Mistake! Because that just hacked off half the population.”
You can’t take purely military or technical action without considering the human context and how people will respond, what McRaven calls “understanding the human domain.” (Calling this a “domain,” however, is a controversial term of art in military circles). “We still have this problem,” the admiral added. “When I left Afghanistan, the debate was raging, do we take out cell towers or don’t we? Unless you understand what’s happening right in that cell footprint” – that is, among the specific human beings living in the specific physical space served by that specific piece of information technology – “then you’re probably going to get it wrong.”
In past wars, America’s enemies needed dedicated radio networks to communicate: You could either jam their transmissions or triangulate them to blow up the transmitter. As McRaven found in Afghanistan, that approach doesn’t translate well to the information age, when insurgents and innocents are often using the same network.
On a tactical level, the enemy or his sympathizers among the civilian population can use smartphones to text the precise location of a US patrol or hi-res pictures of an outpost’s defenses. Innocents who over-share can have the same effect. When Hamas launched crude rockets at Israel last year, for example, it didn’t need any sophisticated “intelligence, surveillance, or reconnaissance” (ISR) to figure out where they’d hit: Hamas just read Israelis’ GPS-tagged tweets and Facebook posts saying something had blown up nearby. Ultimately, the Israeli Defense Force asked all Israelis to stop discussing the attacks on social media.
On a strategic level, the information age makes it much easier to mobilize large numbers of people to cooperate in some common effort, whether it’s staging protests to overthrow a dictator or building homemade bombs to kill American troops. ”What is different now than 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago?” asked Adm. McRaven. Military forces still must mass and maneuver to defeat armed opposition and control terrain, he said, “[but] what I think is different is the reaction of the population and …the second and third order effects of a small tactical maneuver through the blogosphere, through the social media.”
So forget about armies maneuvering through vast blank spaces, like US tanks in the Arabian desert in 1991. Today, as the world gets more densely populated and interconnected, troops must learn to maneuver not only over inanimate terrain but through living, thinking, reacting human populations and the virtual networks those humans use to communicate.
“Understanding and dominating terrain is just as important now as it was 5,000 years ago, and it will be just as important 5,000 years from now,” McRaven said, “[but] we have to understand what terrain to dominate, what’s important to the enemy or to our allies…. by knowing what motivates the people, what incentivizes the people, what mobilizes the people, what frightens them, and what will undermine their will.”
What special operators bring to the table is the understanding, McRaven emphasized, but not the dominance: There aren’t enough of them for that. “[In] Special Operations, we don’t dominate terrain,” said the veteran SEAL. “Our core competency is understanding this human domain we’ve been talking about, that totality of physical, cultural, and social environments that influence human behavior.”
“I see SOF as the connective tissue between the populations and the conventional forces,” McRaven went on. It’s the regular Army and Marine Corps units that have the numbers, firepower, and logistics to seize and defend terrain. “SOF’s never going to stop the North Koreans from going south,” McRaven said. “We can’t keep the Strait of Hormuz open. We can’t conduct an opposed landing. We can’t bring a nation to its knees; but we can shape the outcome of the fight well before the battle begins by knowing and influencing the populations in Phase 1, and, once the fight starts, we can provide insights that will place the right force in the right place at the right time.”
After 12 years of counterinsurgency, the regular Army and Marines have developed a lively appreciation both for special operators and for the importance of understanding the local population. Their understanding of cyber, however, is still in its infancy.
“There’s two schools of thought on this,” said Gen. Robert Cone, head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). “Is cyber just for a group of guys behind a green door or is it something that affects the entire force?….We view it as something that’s much more inclusive,” he told me after the panel. You can’t just hand over cyber operations to a few smart guys in the basement of the National Security Agency and let the rest of the military carry on as usual, he argued. Similarly, you can’t leave interactions with the local populace to a few smart special operators and let the rest of the force hunker down in fortress-like bases, as the US tried to do early on in Iraq. Both human and cyber skills must be integrated into all units at every level, from corps headquarters to small patrols.
You can’t centralize all cyber operations in one national command, Cone told me: “There’s a strategic, operational, and tactical dimension to cyber.”
“The strategic level – which is national level cyber, which is Cyber Command – is focusing on and protecting our infrastructure and other things,” Odierno had said just minutes before. “Then you have operational cyber, which I define as something that is assisting the combatant commanders,” such Pacific Command, Central Command, Africa Command, and so on. “Then you have tactical cyber, which is corps and below.”
“We are reorganizing ourselves in the Army now to deal with this,” Odierno said. “Our initial focus is on the national, strategic level, but we have to start moving out in this operational and tactical mode.” Tactical units such as Army brigades “will be conducting training that requires this interaction, in the human and cyber and land domains, working with Special Operations Forces,” Odierno said. “A combination of those will begin to get us going in the right direction.”
“We have to make sure that we have the capability to defend ourselves [and] to use it an offensive capability to achieve our tactical objectives,” Odierno said of cyber. “It’s the same as any other form of maneuver.”
Currently, however, offensive cyber capabilities are not only highly classified but tightly controlled by the highest authorities. A national-level cyber force can concentrate tremendous skill and computing power against a top-priority targets: Though we can only guess at the details, examples may well include slipping the Stuxnet virus into the Iranian nuclear program and slipping SEAL helicopters past the Pakistani air defense network in the raid to kill Bin Laden.
But a centralized force can hardly respond in time to local commanders on the ground who need someone to take down a particular cell tower, wireless network, or Twitter account being used to organize flash mobs or guerrilla attacks on US forces. It will take major changes in Pentagon policy and even federal law to allow the tight coordination of cyber attacks with physical maneuver and human interaction that Odierno sees as “central.”
“We have to develop this. We have to understand it. We have to be sure we incorporate in the way we conduct operations,” Odierno said. Whether or not the US figures out how to operate cyberspace, he warned, “others definitely will use this in the future.”