Franz-Stefan Gady, Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute
December 21, 2012
The journalist, Joseph Alsop, was not mincing words in his syndicated column on August 1, 1958: “The Eisenhower Administration is guilty of gross untruth concerning the national defense of the U.S.” The reason behind this vitriol was the now infamous (and fictional) missile gap—a presumed strategic advantage for the Soviet Union over the United States in bombers and nuclear missiles—that Alsop believed was factual. When Ike read the paper he supposedly threw it across the room. The president knew the gap was fictional due to top secret, U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union, but he could not inform the public about the non-existing missile gap due to the top-secret nature of the flights. Alsop had received incomplete intelligence from the Air Force and a couple of US senators. For years the fear of a missile gap poisoned the discourse about Soviet capabilities and led to an increase in military spending under the Kennedy administration.
Today, we are in danger of falling into a “cyber weapons gap”—exaggerating the capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army—when it comes to waging cyber war. Halting just short of an Alsop indictment, the press and various national security experts have sensationalized the technology developments of the PLA and the exploits of Chinese hackers. Fear of a cyber “Pearl Harbor” against critical US information infrastructure is exaggerated. While some of the danger of cyber espionage from China is real, doomsday scenarios distort the true nature of the threat.
One reason is that there has been little clarity in public debates about the true impact of cyber war: How much damage would it really inflict? The simple truth is that much of the debate surrounding the PLA’s cyber war capabilities is mere speculation based on evidence of its undoubted success in cyber espionage. Yet the capabilities needed for cyber spying compared with those needed for cyber operations with strategic military impact are very different. High school hackers can chance upon a breach, but a fully mobilized and prepared cyber force, supported by advanced intelligence methods and human intelligence activity, is needed for cyber operations in a theater of war.