"It's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh? What?' You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July." In the summer of 1975, the budding auteur, Steven Spielberg, created a virtual panic at America's beaches with ingeniously crafted screen images of a certain Great White Fish. The top Chinese official of the People's Liberation Army, General Fang Fenghui, created his own Jaws effect when he recently announced that the consequences of a major cyber attack "may be as serious as a nuclear bomb." You yell cyber, everybody says, 'Huh? What?' You yell nuclear, we've got a panic on our hands...
While I do not want to accuse General Fang Fenghui of a plot to manipulate public perception and trigger a cyber hysteria, his remarks are symptomatic of the global uncertainty surrounding the results of a 'major cyber attack.' The simple truth is we do not know the likely consequences of such an attack as there has not been a full-scale cyber war to trigger major strategic cyber attacks. Even if total cyber war should break out, cyber weapons, while destructive, "appear to have nowhere near the ability to inflict catastrophic destruction along the lines of a major nuclear attack," as Andrew F. Krepenevich stated in a report on cyber warfare.
For example, U.S. power grid systems (SCADA systems) are highly centralized, divided into three separate power grids -- the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Interconnection. Ninety percent of the Defense Department's critical infrastructure is dependent upon power from these networks. Military exercises have indicated that even a single cyber strike could disable any of the three grids not to mention the myriad consequences for civilian life. One expert spelled out the potential fallout in congressional testimony in April 2012:
When transformers fail, so too will water distribution, transportation, communications, and many emergency and government services. Given the 12-month lead time typically required to replace a damaged transformer with a new one, the local and regional economic and societal disruption caused by cyber attacks that that disable or destroy the mechanical functioning of key components of the power grid would be devastating.
The possible consequences of such an event combined with cyber attacks on the financial and transportation sector have been mapped out in various scenarios demonstrating the crippling ripple effect of such an assault. But even the most extreme predictions do not approach the human catastrophe of a nuclear detonation in Manhattan and the instant incineration of a million or more people. Comparatively, a major cyber attack might be dramatized as the menacing threat of a Giant Squid, which would require all of the cinematic artifice of the mature Spielberg to effectively magnify the danger in a screen spectacle dubbed Tentacles.
History provides us a vivid example about the impossibility of determining the impact of a new dimension of warfare on the outcome of a conflict. Contrary to some current thinking, the contemporary technological context of war does not so much resemble the 1950s as the 1930s and the evolution of air power and air power strategy.
In 1921, Guilio Douhet argued in his The Command of the Air that air power was revolutionary because it operated in the third dimension setting of a decade long debate about the impact of airplanes on warfare. He argued that since aircrafts could fly over ground forces, they would relegate land soldiers to secondary importance. The vastness of the sky made defense almost impossible, so the essence of air power was the offensive. The only defense was a good offense (similar to the United States Cyber Command active defense doctrine ). The psychological effect of German bombing on France and Great Britain during the First World War led to an exaggerated fear of the capabilities of air power in Western Europe. British Prime Minister Baldwin stated in 1932 that "the bomber would always get through," and the fear of Germany's "knockout blow" against Paris or Britain led to a frenzied search for solutions.
The actual course of the war showed however that much of the fear of airpower was exaggerated. As a matter of fact, "the bombers did not always get through." The German air force lost the Battle of Britain and the air war over Germany and Japan -- although important and lethal -- was not decisive in the outcome of the war. The British Royal Force, the German Luftwaffe and the United States Air Force did not achieve their strategic or operational objectives; air power supported, but could not replace, boots on the ground.
The true strategic impact of cyber weapons also may fall below expectations in a future war. Any historical analogy has its limits however. General Fang Fenghui's rhetoric expresses the palpable fear in both China and the United States of the intrinsic vulnerability of their respective economies and critical information infrastructures to strategic cyber strikes.
Some long-time students of Chinese military policy take Fang's warning very seriously, although not at face value. Dr. Greg Austin, a Professorial Fellow at the EastWest Institute, reminds us that in 1996 Professor Joseph Nye and Admiral Bill Owens together warned that the advent of information weapons and infrastructure may affect strategic deterrence. Says Austin, "those who relegate information warfare to an artificial and compartmented construct similar to air power are ignoring how overarching strategies for information dominance, held both by China and the United States, have altered the calculus of risk for use of a nuclear missile strike." The trouble with this view, credible as it maybe, is that we can't see the physical evidence in the public domain. We need to be able to access some part of the substance of this new and evolving theater of cyber warfare before we can see more clearly what will land "on the beach" of our fears.
A version of this article has appeared on China-US Focus.