WASHINGTON: The cheerfully controversial James “Hoss” Cartwright, retired vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke Friday in an intimate and academic setting that allowed the retired Marine Corps fighter pilot to muse aloud about subjects from the Civil War to quantum computing, from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (he’s a skeptic) to aircraft carriers (they’ll endure). Gen. Cartwright even put in a good word for the People’s Republic of China. The focus of his talk, however, was what he considered unappreciated dangers and opportunities in cyberspace.

[Click here for former National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones’ comments to the same forum on Syria]

First, the dangers: “Most people think about cyber as being the desktop computer and the network it rides on,” Cartwright told the small student-run Georgetown Diplomacy and International Security Conference at Georgetown University, but as mobile devices multiply and wireless connections replace physical ones, “the reality of it is the wireless side is far more likely” an avenue for attack.

“All I need is a willing aperture to let me in and I can start to create havoc,” Cartwright warned.

After all, “wireless” just refers to radio and other electromagnetic transmissions, and militaries around the world have been playing merry havoc with enemy transmissions since World War II: It’s called electronic warfare. Traditionally “EW” boils down to jamming and spoofing — sending false signals to confuse an enemy radio or radar receiver — but the proliferation of wireless networks raises new possibilities to transmit computer viruses as well.

“Breakthroughs normally occur at intersections” between fields, said Cartwright. “EW and cyber, they’re starting to come together. [With electronic warfare] you basically have someone who has now knocked on the door and opened it, and cyber can get in.”

Of course, the US can use wireless hacking and other forms of cyber for its own ends, and there Cartwright waxed enthusiastic. “One of the beautiful parts about cyber [is] it goes from influence all the way to destruction with a lot of points in between,” Cartwright said. “Cyber allows you to have a much broader set of activity and tools short of war.”

In addition to the traditional tools of sanctions, spies, and public statements, the US can now spread online propaganda — or just disable an authoritarian state’s firewalls so its people can access information freely — and attack adversary systems without overt violence by using viruses — not that anyone in the US government admits to being behind the Stuxnet worm that damaged the Iranian nuclear enterprise.

Conversely, Cartwright downplayed the threat to US interests from Chinese cyber-espionage. “Everyone is talking about China is hacking into this that and the other thing, they’re stealing this that and the other thing, they’re terrible people. Got it,” he said. But two hundred years ago, when the young United States was playing catch-up to Britain’s Industrial Revolution, “we went to England and stole every manufacturing secret we could find,” he said. “Rising states do that.”

“We can hate it, we can not like it, but it is basically in the human pattern,” Cartwright said. What the US really needs to keep up with China, he argued, is a new immigration policy to keep talented risk-takers coming from all corners of the world.

Asked by one audience member how the offensive possibilities of cyber might undermine the existing laws of war, Cartwright seemed sanguine: “Much of what we are doing today or could do in cyber could be handled by existing law or policy,” he said. “Very little of it is going to require new standing law.” In fact, he went on, the real danger is “people rushing to pour cement on new policy and law in a world where things last 18 months.”

“Our legislative bodies are very happy to say, we passed it, it’s done, it will last forever,” he warned.

It’s not just the legislative process that lags behind Moore’s Law, however: It’s also the traditional Pentagon procurement process. Consider the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s largest acquisitions program, which is still trying to fix problems in the design. “I wrote the requirement for the F-35 in 1979,” said Cartwright. “We still haven’t fielded the first one into the fleet.”

“Platforms are no longer the basis of the solution,” he said. “They are trucks” that must be able to carry the latest and most upgraded sensors, smart weapons, and other information technology.

On the other hand, Cartwright defended the relevance of the Navy’s flagship “platform,” the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as the biggest and most versatile truck of all. “I don’t see it going away,” He said. “Unlimited energy, mobility, and sovereign ground space to occupy? That’s going to be valuable any time, any place.”

The greatest strategic impact of cyberspace, however, Cartwright saw in the smallest packages. The role of social media in the Arab Spring, he noted, is well known. But he also described one experiment in Afghanistan in which the US distributed a thousand smartphones to Afghans of various sects and tribes — many of them illiterate — and enticed them to use the technology with an Afghan version of American Idol.

“[In] two months, they were texting, they were using the phones, very comfortably going across all the social barriers that for the last five thousand years have defined their culture,” said Cartwright. “Quite frankly, when we leave next year, just like all the conquerors that have gone to in Afghanistan in the past, we’ll be forgotten very quickly. That phone will not.”

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