WASHINGTON: There’s no one thing that keeps the Pentagon’s chief of intelligence up at night. There’s half-a-dozen things — terrorism, cybersecurity, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China — but Mike Vickers has a six-point plan to counter them.
“The big challenge we face is really in the aggregation of challenges,” the under secretary for intelligence said this morning at the Atlantic Council. “It’s not that any one challenge is so daunting, it’s that there’s six of them. [They] are diverse, they’re all significant, they’re likely to be enduring.”
“Unlike the Cold War, when we had one big enduring threat and then a series of episodic threats, we have several that are likely to be enduring now,” Vickers added, “[and] all of them over the past few years have gotten worse.”
A Sense of Siege: The Senate & Yemen
“As Zbigniew Brzezinski and others have noted, we’re in a time of unprecedented instability in international system,” Vickers said.
That sense of siege is certainly shared. Just this morning, Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was the inaugural hearing of new chairman John McCain, who greeted the two elder statesman with sobering words.
“The liberal world order is imperiled like never before,” said Sen. McCain. After scoffing at President Obama’s State of the Union address for what he called “unrealistic wishful thinking,” the former GOP presidential candidate ran down a list of threats almost identical to Vickers’: Russia, China, Iran, and Islamic extremism. (McCain didn’t mention North Korea or cybersecurity).
On the terrorism front, McCain took a shot at administration policy on Yemen, where Shia militants called Houthis seized facilities of the US-backed government and extracted concessions. “In Yemen, the country President Obama once hailed as a successful model for his brand of counterterrorism, Al-Qaeda continues to facilitate global terrorism, as we saw in the barbaric attacks in Paris, and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have pushed the country to the brink of collapse,” McCain said.
It’s worth noting that while the Shia rebels decry excessive US influence, they arguably hate al-Qaeda more. “The Houthis are anti-al-Qaeda,” Vickers said today, “and we’ve been able to continue some of our counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda the past several months.”
“The Huthi certainly have exercised significant influence in Yemen since September and it’s expanded rather significantly in recent days,” Vickers said mildly. “I don’t know if their aim yet is to take over the state so much as to… refashion it.”
Terrorists & Technology
Is there a common thread in all these threats? “Terrorism plus cyber are our most immediate threats,” said Vickers, though not necessarily the most dangerous in the long run.
Driving violence around the world, he said, is the competition between Al Qaeda — now the old guard — and the self-proclaimed Islamic State for the allegiance of Sunni extremists. A Yemen-based al-Qaeda branch took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris while a dissident Taliban leader in Afghanistan claims to have defected to the Islamic State.
The nation-state threat, by contrast, manifests most immediately in cyberspace. There are aggressive cyber programs in Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea — witness the Sony Pictures attack, Vickers said.
“This is an area still, though, where states have advantages in terms of the capabilities they can bring to bear,” Vickers said. Non-state organizations have “cyber ambitions” and conduct “limited disruption operations,” he said, but they’re less likely to attack cyberspace than to use it. “It’s more the communication capabilities and social media that really enable terrorists,” Vickers said, rather than any ability to conduct cyber attacks.
That said, the global proliferation of advanced technology is eroding what were once American advantages or even monopolies. Satellite imagery and advanced cryptography are now widely available, Vickers said, making it easier to see what the US is up to and harder for the US to read others’ messages. Meanwhile it’s easier to track people than ever thanks to the rise of biometric technology and “the digital dust that we all leave around as we lead our lives, including intelligence officers,” Vickers said — though that’s an opportunity for US collection as well as a threat.
Six Improvements: From Satellites To Cyber
In a changing world where we face multiple threats at once, what does Vickers propose doing differently? He offered some tantalizing hints about what he called “the most significant transformation of the defense intelligence enterprise we’ve undertaken in the past several decades… something that I hope will be one of the hallmarks of my tenure as under secretary of defense for intelligence.”
Vickers’ initiatives hit half a dozen areas (he groups them into five but they make more sense as six): satellites, codebreaking, human intelligence, warfighting, counter-terrorism, and cybersecurity.
1) When it comes to “global coverage” — i.e. satellites — “we’ve made significant improvements in our overhead architecture in the past decade,” Vickers said, “[but] there are even bigger changes to come in the next decade. I can’t go into details but it will provide much greater persistence than we have today, much greater integration in terms of the system of systems, and much greater resiliency [against threats].”
2) Besides satellites, the other pillar of US intelligence has been codebreaking — but it’s increasingly easy for states, groups, and even individuals to acquire sophisticated encryption. To stay ahead, said Vickers, we must “continue our investment in advanced cryptanalytic systems.”
3) By contrast to “technical means” like satellites and signals, human intelligence has been a problem child for decades, but it has gotten much more investment since the intelligence failures of 9/11. After a decade-plus of strengthening humint on the tactical and operational levels (primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq), Vickers said, “now we’re reforming our strategic capabilities that’s distributed around the globe.”
4) Vickers is also supporting the rest of the Defense Department as it figures out how to defeat the advanced layered defenses known as “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD). China and to a lesser extent Iran are exemplars of this approach, attempting to stave off US forces with a mix of long-range missiles, combat aircraft, surface vessels, and advanced sensors. Vickers didn’t make clear how intelligence will help forces “projecting power into denied areas,” but he argues intel has done so successfully ever since it built the U-2 to soar above Soviet anti-aircraft systems in the 1950s.
5) At the (relatively) low intensity end of the conflict spectrum, Vickers said, “we are not only sustaining but expanding… our counterterrorism capabilities,” by which he particularly seems to have meant drones. The Defense Department is extending range, improving sensors, and expanding its fleet, he said. Vickers is also “very pleased” by the Air Force’s recent steps to shore up the overstressed workforce of drone operators.
6) The Defense Department is about “two-thirds” done with building the new Cyber Mission Forces to defend its networks. There’s still work to do, said Vickers, in “building the intelligence infrastructure to support these operational forces. Meanwhile, internally, the defense intelligence world is creating a system of “continuous evaluation” to guard against insider threats like Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.