Photo: Casper Folsing, flickr.com
According to its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, cyber attacks present the greatest current threat to the US. Cyberwarfare is a shift from traditional military warfare but has proved to be just as threatening to state security.
Importantly, North Korea, Russia, China, and Iran are all capable of carrying out advanced cyber attacks against US interests. This has already been seen in Iran’s response to the US Stuxnet attack, with the launch of attacks against US online banking sites. Although Iran denied these accusations, reporting that they “respect international law”, US General William Shelton said that Iran still poses a risk due to the “potential threat that they will represent” to the US. The Worldwide Threat Assessment report states that “Iran … is capable of causing localized, temporary disruptive effects – such as disrupting a large company’s corporate network for days to weeks”.
North Korea remains a cyber threat, specifically to financial institutions. Arguably, the cyber threat they present is just as great as the nuclear threat. American journalist and Korean peninsula specialist Geoffrey Cain stated that North Korean hacking “doesn’t kill populations, but I do think as a threat it’s more up front than nuclear weapons”. Last year, North Korea was accused of hacking into South Korean computers to steal information about military weapons and aircraft, as well as the personal information of almost 1,000 refugees living in South Korea.
The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment reported that Russia and China are strengthening their cyber attack capabilities while simultaneously probing for US cyber weaknesses. The assessment highlighted three main threats from Russia and China: cyber attacks against critical infrastructure; online influence/misinformation campaigns designed to destabilise American democratic institutions; and direct interference in US elections (expected in the 2020 elections). Russia and China have the ability to target US natural gas pipelines, causing detrimental explosions, as well as a capacity to damage power grids and banking networks. The Worldwide Threat Assessment warns that these cyber attacks have the ability to be more dangerous than military attacks, and could leave the US extremely vulnerable.
Russia and China appear to be aligning their operations in cyberspace in order to oppose US geo-strategic dominance in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Russian cyberspace aggression tested and enhanced through attacks on Ukraine, Georgia, and Estonia is finally being utilised against the US. However, although Russia is perceived as the more dangerous threat, the real threat comes from China, as a result of its cyber efficiency and means of exploiting US vulnerabilities.
Chinese espionage in the United States, namely the allegation that the Chinese government is selling trade secrets and technology to support its military and commercial development, is an immense and growing concern for the US government. This illegal surveillance is done through theft of intellectual property, which is reproduced to undermine US economic power. This is estimated to cost the US around $225-600 billion annually, with former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander reporting China’s IP theft as the “greatest transfer of wealth in history”. The stolen property will be critical to improving Chinese technical and military power, so the cost to the US is far more than economic.
While the US isn’t hitting back at China with similar cyber warfare strategies, they are responding vigorously to the threat. So far, they’ve increased investment in cybersecurity, encouraged companies to protect themselves against cyber intrusions, and vastly limited the use of Chinese technology and equipment in the US. They’ve also put pressure on allies to similarly restrict the use of Chinese technology, due to the potential for this to be used as spyware. This was seen in the criminal charges filed against telecoms company Huawei after they intentionally and systematically attempted to commit IP theft against an American company. In addition, the US government has increased hostility in prosecuting Chinese spies in their attempts to steal US secrets.
With countries as unpredictable as North Korea, as bold as Russia and as threatening as Iran, there’s no way to precisely calculate the threat that cyber warfare presents to the United States. It is clear, however, that the time of traditional warfare is over, replaced by a more sinister, unstable form of war.
Alysha Carter is a student with an interest in International Relations within the Asia-Pacific region. She plans to complete a Bachelor of Global Studies/Masters of International Relations at Monash University.