navy quartermaster with computer on USS ashland Quartermaster 3rd Class Sharon Stone checks coordinates on a computer on the bridge of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland on Aug. 3, 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Alexandra Seeley)

Navy Cyber Review: U.S. Military Already Overmatched by Russia, China

The U.S. military has already been overtaken in its warfighting ability by “near peer” adversaries Russia and China — if you take into account the vulnerability to cyber attack of America’s civilian industries vital to the war effort, like the power grid.

That’s the sobering conclusion of a Cybersecurity Readiness Review undertaken for Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and published last week. A panel of outside experts interviewed dozens of senior Defense and Navy officials and officers and presented an unvarnished and alarming set of conclusions.

“Competitors and potential adversaries have exploited [Navy] information systems, penetrated its defenses, and stolen massive amounts of national security [intellectual property, or] IP,” the authors state. “This has lessened our capabilities and lethality, while strengthening their offensive and defensive capabilities.”

The looting of national security secrets like weapons designs is “war before the war,” they conclude, calling it an “existential threat to national security.”

But it also a creeping threat, much less apparent than conventional ones. “China and Russia carefully meter their cyber warfare against the U.S. so as to not trigger a national response,” the authors state. “This enables them to achieve superiority ‘left of phase 0’ and achieve their goals without incurring a kinetic consequence.”

And the news is worse than that, because it’s not just the military that has been looted, but America’s most profitable and innovative industries, too. The economic cost of that huge-scale wealth transfer will have its own impact on the balance of military power.

“The erosion of U.S. economic strength resulting from the national losses of IP will, in the future, further weaken U.S. military capability as our competitors will be capable of funding their [military] growth at a relatively faster rate,” the authors predict.

As a result, the current global asymmetry — the unchallengeable might of the U.S. military — will flip, and it will be the U.S. that finds itself the “near peer” competitor.

“Alarmingly,” the authors argue, “near peer status may have already been reached if one truly considers the disruptability of the critical enabling infrastructure necessary to mobilize the nation and actually get forces to and sustained in a true peer-on-peer fight.”

In other words, if the enemy can turn off the power grid, or bring down the banking system, they may already be capable of over-matching the  U.S. in an all-out war.

The authors place much of the blame at the feet of the military bureaucracy which declared victory after the cold war and then ignored Russia and China in favor of “a laser focus … on counter-terrorism.”

Worse, the service remains poorly equipped to recover, the authors argue. Navy “culture, processes, structure, and resources are ill-suited for this new era. The culture is characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation of the threats, and inability to anticipate them, and a responsive checklist behavior that values compliance over outcomes, antiquated processes and governance structures that are late to respond to dynamic threats.”

The end result? The Navy “is preparing to fight tomorrow’s kinetic war, which may or may not come, while losing the global cyber enabled information war” which has already been raging a couple of decades.

Among its recommendations, the review’s authors urge identifying and better protecting essential data assets, selecting and empowering Naval leaders to oversee a long-term cybersecurity strategy and imposing new accountability requirements on military contractors to ensure they meet minimum cybersecurity standards.

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Shaun is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the BBC and United Press International. In the past five years, Shaun has launched two of the best-respected and most widely read DC daily cybersecurity newsletters — POLITICO Pro's Morning Cybersecurity and Scoop News Group's CyberScoop. Shaun became UPI's Homeland and National Security Editor shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, covering the Department of Homeland Security from its standup in 2003. His reporting on DHS and counter-terrorism policy earned him two (2005, 2011) "Dateline Washington" awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, and a senior fellowship at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. In 2009-10 Shaun produced a major report on cybersecurity for critical infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank. From 2010-2013, he wrote about intelligence, foreign affairs and cybersecurity as a staff reporter for The Washington Times. Shaun, who is British, has a master’s degree in social and political sciences from King’s College, Cambridge. He is married and lives in Washington, DC with his wife and three American sons, Miles, Harry and Peter.

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