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Domains, Budgets and Bureaucracies: Nukes, Space & Now — Cyber

Posted by Joan Johnson-Freese on


Joan Johnson Freese, a member of our Board of Contributors and professor at the Naval War College, is an expert on space, Strategic Command and several other topics dealt with below. She doesn’t think the creation of Cyber Command is a great idea. Read on to find why. The Editor.

Analysis of the Peloponnesian War is a standard of military and security studies curricula. Strategists had it relatively easy between the 5th century BC and the 19th century AD: land power versus sea power, but then things began to get complicated. In the 19th century “domains” – warfighting environments – began to expand.

War took to the air, so clearly “air” was now a domain, and ships now battled undersea, so that must be a domain as well. Each new domain seemed to bring with it changes in military organizational charts. In the United States, “air” got its own service in the form of the Air Force and its own branch in the Navy, as did submariners.

But that wasn’t the end of organizational growth beyond traditional considerations. A special category of arms — nuclear weapons — got its own place on the organizational charts, with space and cyber later added as yet more domains. But this organizational growth does not necessarily improve America’s ability to fight wars, or even a logical purpose. It is often largely a budget-driven bureaucratic purpose. That is a purpose the United States can no longer afford.

Cyber is the newest domain, the flavor of the day. Attach the prefix Cyber to anything and it can immediately be funded. It is in 2014 what “transformational” was during the Rumsfeld years. Most prevalent in the lingo is cyberwar. But Thomas Rid questioned what that actually means in his book Cyber War Will Not Take Place. A 2013 profile in the Boston Globe summed it up nicely.

Calling digital attacks “war,” Rid argues, wrongly equates computers with traditional military weapons. “Code can’t explode, plain and simple,” he says. “So you have to weaponize a target system, be it an airplane, a pacemaker, a power plant, something else.” Any successful digital attack must be highly tailored, requires quality intelligence, and only becomes “war” if the end result is something we’d acknowledge as an act of war.

RAND analyst Martin Libicki accepted the premise of cyberspace but questioned the value of calling it a domain:

Whether cyberspace does or does not have the essence of a warfighting domain as per some platonic ideal is not at issue. Instead, we contend that understanding cyberspace as a warfighting domain is not helpful when it comes to understanding what can and should be done to defend and attack networked systems. To the extent that such a characterization leads strategists and operators to presumptions or conclusions that are not derived from observation and experience, this characterization may mislead. The argument that cyberspace is a warfighting domain, only a really different one, begets the question of what purpose is served by calling cyberspace a domain in the first place.

Libicki’s point about leading strategists and operators to potentially incorrect, counterproductive, or inertia/bureaucartic driven presumptions and conclusions is already been demonstrated by the manner in which nuclear weapons and space have been tackled.

Nuclear weapons entered the U.S. arsenal in 1945. After a series of bureaucratic permutations in the 20th century, Strategic Command (StratCom) was born in 1992 to, basically, be responsible for nuclear weapons and associated missions, including deterrence and later missile defense. It was bureaucratically reborn in 2002 when it was merged with Space Command.

The military had been actively transiting space and placing assets in space since the 1950’s. Many of the missions facilitated by space-based technology were in conjunction with StratCom. By 1985, space capabilities had grown and were seen as of such importance to warrant creation of new, unified U.S. Space Command.  During the Gulf War in 1990-91, space systems provided such a decisive edge for the U.S.-led coalition that the war was dubbed the first “Space War.” In subsequent military operations in areas including the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, space-based command and control, communications, surveillance and intelligence, navigation, and weather systems became an integral part of operations.

The four traditional national security space missions are space support, force enhancement, space control and force applications. While the first two largely deal with capabilities supporting ground and air operations from space, space control and force applications imply warfighting operations in space.  Hence, space became the fourth military domain, joining air, land and sea.

The organizational issues created by space becoming the fourth domain largely flowed from culture and usage of space-based capabilities. In the 1990’s the Air Force changed its mission statement monikers from Air, to Air & Space, to Aerospace in the course of a decade. In an organization run by a hierarchy of pilots, space struggled to find its place. And while the Air Force was largely responsible for the space support aspects of the space mission, the Army and Navy were the largest consumers of the force enhancement capabilities provided. That created tensions regarding both budgets and defining needed capabilities.  The Air Force successfully fought to be named the DOD “Executive Agent” for space, organizationally settling primarily who owns and gets budgeted for most military space hardware.

But all this organization and reorganization has done little in terms of addressing basic questions about U.S. goals, intentions, regarding nuclear weapons and space security. Part of the problem – a big part —  is that once a weapon or a domain gets its own bureaucracy, inertia becomes the guiding strategic principle. If any further evidence is needed for that premise one needs look no further than the colossal, inefficient boondoogle that is the Department of Homeland Security.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was intended to clear up a lot of questions the role of nuclear weapons in the overall U.S. security posture and therefore, how many nuclear weapons and what kind of nukes were needed. But that turned out to be too hard. Ambiguity and the status quo prevailed. Then only 2 years later, there was to be a nuclear “implementation study” – more likely a re-do of the NPR that had landed with a “thud” so loud even Washington couldn’t ignore its bad reviews. But that too slipped away into oblivion, likely to the relief of those who might be affected by the bane of any bureaucracy, change.

And then there’s the 2011 National Security Space Policy, said to chart “a path for the next decade to respond to the current and projected space strategic environment.” The current and future strategic environment is defined as being driven by three trends –increasingly congested, contested, and competitive.  Implementing approaches to dealing with those trends is left to process participants with a vested interest in increasingly their budgets.  Especially in an era of tightening budgets, bureaucracies who can show the biggest and most immediate threats tend to prevail in budget battles. Feeding bureaucratic needs narrows options.

Once a weapon is deemed special or a new domain is classified, it gets its own bureaucracy, its own budget, and strategy becomes guided as much by bureaucratic principles and goals as national needs, ignoring realities and sometimes even physics in the case of space domination gee-whiz technology proposals especially popular during the George W. Bush administration years.

Cyber Command, a sub-command of StratCom, has now joined nuclear and space as “special children.”  The capabilities afforded by each, and their intertwined nature, can rightfully deem them as special.  These special capabilities are highly technical and broad in scope. The effect of being bureaucratized – with self-perpetuation the primary goal of every bureaucracy – on strategic planning for using and protecting these special children is largely ignored until made glaring clear by the un-strategic, ambiguous and often non-substantive official documents laid out by and for them.  Strategy and policy options become inherently narrowed by bureaucracies, while programs with little or no apparent strategic alignment can become bloated.

Not surprisingly, in 2011 the Defense Department promulgated a Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace. The first initiative: Treat cyberspace as an operational domain to organize, train, and equip so that DoD can take full advantage of cyberspace’s potential. What does that even mean?

Just as there can be no winning a War on Terrorism because terrorism is a tactic, space cannot be controlled and cyber attacks – which used to be called simply sabotage — cannot be stopped. At best, the U.S. will be better at using cyber against opponents, Stuxnet comes to mind, than they are against us.

Very pragmatic problems occur as well.  The best nerds and geeks who populate the space and cyber communities are not exactly the process and rule oriented types comfortable in bureaucracies. The work environment, dress code and employees expectations at Google and SpaceX differ significantly from those of a 0730-1600 government – military – cubicle worker.

Bureaucratic responses to nontraditional “special children” – and nuclear weapons, space and cyber are likely not the last of these that will appear – require different, non-traditional approaches. Once they are “named” and bureaucratized, however, chances of that happening quickly diminish.

Mission statements for nuclear weapons, space and cyber are rife with words like plan, coordinate, integrate, synchronize, secure, deter, detect, defend, ensure and dominance because these are words and concepts bureaucracies are familiar and comfortable with.  But “dominance” – just for example – has time and space implications.  The United States cannot have 24/7 dominance in space or cyber. Old ways of working don’t work.

The primary goal of any bureaucracy is self-perpetuation. Bureaucracies have not served nuclear weapons or space well. There is little reason to think cyber will be any different.


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