The New, More Dangerous Massive Attacks of Disruption

By Harlan Ullman

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To paraphrase Karl Marx: A specter is haunting the globe. It is the specter of the new MAD — not the Cold War’s “mutual assured destruction” that could have erupted into a thermonuclear holocaust eviscerating much of society. The new MAD stands for “massive attacks of disruption.” Unlike the old MAD, the newer version has already wreaked havoc across the planet and will continue to do so with greater intensity unless it is checked.

Massive attacks of disruption induced by acts of nature, from pandemics to extreme weather conditions, threaten society at large. So do manmade acts of disruption. China, Russia and non-state actors understand the potency and force of this concept. Beijing and Moscow are developing kinetic and non-kinetic strategies based on disrupting military forces, the U.S. system of government, the homeland, and allies and alliances.

COVID-19 was the most obvious precursor of the new MAD. More Americans have died of the novel coronavirus than in every conflict the United States has fought since the Civil War ended. Unlike the Spanish flu of 1918-1920, COVID-19 massively disrupted international trade and finance. And unlike nuclear war, much of the new MAD is not deterrable, including climate change and certain types of cyber attacks from state and non-state actors. And these trends may not be preventable or containable absent unified global action.

In December 2019, who foresaw the arrival of a pandemic; Russian cyber attacks and storms that would shut down the U.S northeast for lack of gasoline supplies; a ship grounding in the Suez Canal creating a global supply chain bottleneck for days; and the overrunning of the Capitol by Americans upset about the outcome of a presidential election?

Massive attacks of disruption should provoke public demand for action. So far, that has not happened.

What created this new MAD? A combination of globalization and the diffusion of power is responsible for undoing the 350-year-old Westphalian system of state-centric international politics. Ironically, one unintended consequence was that as societies became more advanced largely through technological revolutions, greater dependencies and vulnerabilities were created domestically and internationally. It is these dependencies and vulnerabilities that MAD exploits to disrupt society at large, whether through natural or manmade causes.

Consider what senior managers and CEOs of defense companies could face under the new MAD. There may be long-term disruptions to internet, cell phones and information-technology systems. There may be loss of access to electrical power, natural gas and diesel fuel to run generators due to violent weather, and permanent shortages arising from disruptions.

Supply chain delays may cause incompletion of most contracts — some for more than a year. There could be extended deferral of government payments because of defense budget cuts. Look out for spates of ransomware attacks affecting companies and their suppliers and subcontractors.

Finally, suppose that some or many of these disruptions were imposed by adversaries or other entities wishing us ill? How might contractors respond — or not?

Beyond COVID and state and non-state actors, seven major disruptors can be identified.

The first is failed and failing governments, which applies to many countries and particularly the United States. Congress cannot pass a budget on time, forcing federal agencies to operate on continuing resolutions. That makes effective management impossible.

The other disruptors are climate change, cyber, social media, terrorism, debt and drones.

While the existential nature of climate change has been hotly debated, there is no serious debate over the symptoms, from significant increases in extreme weather to shrinking polar ice caps.

Many Americans are intimately familiar with cyber challenges and the disruptions they can impose. Social media has become a preferred vehicle for disruptive amounts of disinformation, misinformation and distortions of truth, fact and reality.

The FBI and CIA have concluded that the main threat of terror-imposed disruption is domestic. Yet ISIS and al-Qaida are not gone.

Debt is a ticking time bomb as every chief financial officer knows. When interest rates and payments rise, as they will, severe cuts on the discretionary parts of the federal budget, namely defense, will follow.

The role of drones will increasingly expand to replace many current functions undertaken by humans. However, like the internet and dynamite, drones have serious disruptive downsides. Cheap and easy to assemble, suppose the Jan. 6, 2021, protestors flew dozens of drones armed with explosives and programmed them to strike the Capitol. Unopposed, they could have destroyed the building.

Compounding the effects of MAD are harsh budget realities for the defense sector. The Ever-Shrinking Fighting Force, by retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chairman of NDIA, is a textbook case study that describes in detail how the system has deteriorated to the point where spending more has resulted in a smaller military.

The villain behind this trend is uncontrolled real annual cost growth of about 5 to 7 percent for everything from people to precision weapons to pencils, which is one factor shrinking the force. Defense budget increases will never cover that gap absent a disaster or a universally perceived existential danger to the nation.

If the United States is to be kept safe, secure and prosperous, the new MAD must gain a national security priority equivalent to that of China and Russia. Here, NDIA could play an important role by pursuing three ideas that concentrate on the consequences of MAD for the nation’s defense and its defense industries.

First, the association can determine where and how MAD — whether caused by man or nature — will most significantly affect how we provide for national defense; what can be done to deal with MAD in the context of defense; and why these actions are vital and will benefit the nation’s well-being, the Defense Department and the defense industrial sector.

Second, the government, despite major attempts to empower creativity, has not fully succeeded. Many companies decline to do business with the Defense Department to avoid subjecting themselves to regulatory, oversight and intellectual property issues as well as modest profit margins. Establishing a means for defense companies to act as intermediaries with these firms to bring new technologies into hardware and software products on a rapid basis, could be a vital mission for NDIA focusing on how to prevent, contain and mitigate MAD.

Third, supply chain disruptions are likely to worsen before improving because of these disruptions. The supply chain has been organized around efficiency and not resilience. Can this be reversed?

Massive attacks of disruption pose the most profound consequences for national security. Understanding how to deal with them can open up new business opportunities for industry to exploit.

Because of the powerful bureaucratic inertia in government, unless the private sector acts, it will be the new MAD and not a near-peer adversary that may prove to be the greater threat to the nation and its friends and allies.

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.

Topics: Defense Department

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