By Brian Hellesto
In the 70 years following the end of World War II, the U.S. military has systematically developed its military capability to the point that – when combined with the benefits of its geographical position – has formed a near impenetrable barrier to adversary nations projecting power against its homeland. However, it is imperative both the military and civilian leaders of the U.S. acknowledge, as history has proven, impenetrable barriers are temporary, and often more vulnerable than would appear. There are numerous historical case studies where a nation based its military strategy solely upon the belief that a particular capability or defensive construct would be impossible to overcome, only to suffer when those beliefs were proved flawed. One of the most obvious examples of this was the French reliance on the Maginot Line prior to WWII. In both the case of interwar France and modern-day America, senior leaders operated under the impression that the imposing capability of their defensive construct would ensure the next war would be fought on their own terms. However, just as the French found in 1939, this may not necessarily be the case. This article will highlight the need for U.S. senior leaders to understand the inherent risk in assuming the inviolability of a defensive construct when planning for future conflicts.
Despite the commonly repeated rhetoric that claimed WWI was the war to end all wars, it was clear that the French defense establishment was fully aware of the potential threat of future military conflicts with its European neighbors. Placed upon the far western edge of the wide open Northern European plains, France had experienced centuries of repeated conflicts. As both invader and the invaded, France also fully expected this cycle would continue. The shear amount of industrial and political effort employed to develop the military capabilities of France make this abundantly clear. French military aviation was the most aggressively funded of any country in the world, far out producing its competitors and creating some of the most technically advanced aircraft of the era. Yet, even more impressive was the creation of one of the most complex and massive series of fortifications in history, the Maginot Line. The engineers of this marvel called upon the tactical lessons learned from WWI and created a construct that established robust defensive cover, mutually supporting fields of fire, detailed artillery integration, and an advanced communication system. In short, this construct was perfectly designed to defeat any attempt to repeat the massed formation tactics of WWI.
Unfortunately for the French, they learned the wrong lessons from WWI. Whereas the allies learned the lessons of defensive bulwarks and an “impenetrable” line, the Germans primary lesson was the need for maneuver and agility. The Germans were fully aware of the folly of attempting to overcome the Maginot Line through a frontal assault. While the Maginot Line was developed as a means to defeat an enemy’s military capability through massive attrition, the Germans were in the process of developing their maneuver construct, commonly known as the Blitzkrieg. The Blitzkrieg leveraged the mobility of mechanized infantry with mass fire power from the combination of armor, tactical aviation, and mobile artillery. This modern twist on maneuver warfare allowed the Germans to isolate and thus, neutralize large portions of the French and Allied defenses without becoming bogged down in the trenches of the previous war.
The question all military professionals should ask themselves is – how does this case study apply to my own national problem set? Unlike the French, perched as they are on the Northern European plains, the U.S. has the benefit of two natural geographic barriers in the form of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The combination of this favorable geography and a massive economy enabled post war America to establish a defensive doctrine based upon the deployment of numerous aircraft Carrier Strike Groups (CSG). Currently, the Navy has 19 total aircraft carriers with ten “super carrier” CSGs to meet the military needs of the U.S. government. In contrast, the navies of the rest of world can account for 10 carriers,[i] with only one equipped with catapults, the French owned Charles de Gaulle. These American CSGs not only have a highly advanced capability to mass firepower, but they are able to shift firepower anywhere on the oceans of the world within a matter of days. The fact the U.S. has leveraged the world’s largest economy to pay for a naval construct that so far out paces any other naval power in the world has enabled the U.S. to effectively ensure the security of its homeland from hostile acts in a historically unprecedented way.[ii] Should a peer or near-peer actor develop a capability to threaten or destroy an entire CSG it is economically unfeasible to field a force capable of defeating all 19 groups. Furthermore, this ignores the follow-on requirement of projecting a force competent of executing an amphibious landing upon a hostile territory across several thousand miles of ocean. For 70 years, the ability to rely upon the near invulnerability of the U.S. defense to conventional attack has driven our military thinking to concentrate on power projection, rather than defending the homeland. The only two threats conceivable to U.S. territory are Nuclear and Terrorism, of which the second is placed in the hands of civilian entities within America’s territorial borders.
The problem which arises from impenetrable barriers is adversaries rarely accept the existence of a power imbalance indefinitely. As was demonstrated by the Germans and the Maginot Line, if a construct is truly impenetrable, then the adversary will simply go around it. There is no country or alliance capable of facing the U.S. “blue-water” fleet in the foreseeable future. So, if they cannot directly oppose it, what could adversaries do to go around the “U.S.’ blue-water Maginot Line?” The short answer is they will ignore the U.S. military might by using America’s version of the Ardennes Forest – cyberspace. The geographic barriers of the ocean mean little to the malicious code that travels at light speed through fiber optic lines running under the keels of our impenetrable navy. This is exacerbated by the fact that the very economy that has supported the worlds most advanced military has become entirely dependent upon the electronic-highways over which this attack will travel. Every aspect of U.S. society is not only connected to cyberspace, but is intrinsically dependent on it to conduct even the most banal of activities. This ranges from gas stations pumping gas, to super markets ordering supplies, to electrical grids producing and transmitting power.
Two key factors make defending against this attack difficult. First, the vast majority of data transiting the internet travels through the wide-open channels of U.S. information highways, almost entirely upon commercially owned and operated communication technology and servers. Not only does defending this wide-open terrain dwarf the task of defending France on the Northern European Plains, but the military finds itself on a virtual battlefield, defending against attacks on ‘terrain’ in which it generally lacks the legal authority to operate. The very manner in which data transits the internet means any attempt to monitor or block information flow from adversary nations will also monitor or block legitimate traffic, much of which will belong to American citizens and corporations. Second, establishing an appropriate response to a cyber-attack is exceedingly difficult. The nature of the cyber environment means it is often impossible to establish the originator of a specific attack, as any specific action could have originated form a nation state, a non-state actor, or even a 13-year kid in a basement. Even when the originator can be ascertained the level of appropriate response is highly debatable. Is the insertion of malware onto an energy grid by a nation state the equivalent of an artillery strike, and thus deserving of a military response? While many would argue a military response would be an overreaction, malware that drops a cities energy grid could potential cause more loss of life and economic damage than any artillery strike. Both of these factors make it extremely difficult for the U.S. military to effectively defend against hostile actions by adversaries in cyberspace.
What this means to the military of the United States is that, just as the French found themselves in a position to have their forces neutralized by German maneuver through the Ardennes, the U.S. is in a position to be neutralized by maneuver through cyberspace. If an adversary nation can avoid engaging the overwhelming military might of the U.S. and instead directly affect the economic and social network, it is possible for the U.S. to suffer a massive defeat without a shot ever being fired. As the U.S. continues to become ever more reliant on the capabilities and benefits of cyberspace it is imperative senior leaders recognize the once impenetrable combination of geography and military strength is no longer so impermeable.
The purpose of this article is not to introduce possible solutions to meet the emerging defensive needs of the U.S. in the coming years, it is far too short of a venue to do such. Instead it is intended to highlight a glaring blind spot in the thought process of military and civilian leaders. 70 years of enjoying a near impregnable defensive barrier has left those leaders with the habit of primarily worrying about what they can do to their adversaries, and generally ignoring what their adversaries can do to the U.S. While there is no question the U.S. military has clearly established its capability to effectively defeat any adversary nation in the physical realms of Air, Sea, and Land, it is imperative the U.S. come to grips with the existential threat posed by our adversaries in cyberspace.
[i] The 11th U.S. Aircraft Carrier listed on this source was the USS Enterprise which was decommissioned in 2012.
[ii] The argument can be made for states which were impenetrable, from Egyptian geography to the Roman Legions, however the combination of geographical isolation and military might is unprecedented.
Brian “Foreman” Hellesto is a United States Air Force F-35 Fighter Pilot. He is attending Air Command and Staff College with a Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at Maxwell AFB, Montgomery.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.