“May God have mercy upon our enemies, because I won’t.”
On the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbour, it’s worth asking could it ever happen again? A conventional war over Ukraine is clearly a threat – but is it one the Russians would risk without first trying to significantly weaken the West’s resilience though a cyberstrike? As they sow, so would they reap.
Today is the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbour. “A Day that will live in Infamy”, said President FD Roosevelt. It was the pivotal moment of the Second World War – the event that precipitated the US into the conflict. Many modern historians believe the administration was secretly relieved it happened – overcoming isolationists at a stroke. Although the death toll was lower than 9/11, Pearl Harbour still reverberates around the globe – don’t poke the hornet’s nest. There is nothing like this Morning’s quote above from General George S. Patton to sum up the American attitude to an unprovoked war.
Churchill said he slept “the sleep of the saved” on hearing the news, delighted the Arsenal of Democracy had finally joined the fight. He was right – whatever short-term reverses and stumbles subsequently occurred, the USA’s economic might and production capacity ensured final victory. It’s worth remembering America never declared war on Germany. The Reich declared war on America on Dec 11th – thus also reaping the Allied whirlwind.
We’re all familiar with the story of Japan’s mistake.
The Japanese simply didn’t understand America. They bet the farm on a quick devasting strike, hoping it would encourage the Americans to negotiate on embargos. They achieved a solid tactical win sinking 7 old Battleships, but it was a strategic disaster. They failed to cripple America by sinking the two American Aircraft Carriers on exercise close to the Islands, although they probably could have by adopting a more flexible approach to operational planning. American emerged pre-eminent from the conflict. Japan remains the only nation to have been nuclear bombed into submission.
Does Pearl Harbour hold many lessons for the modern age?
Later today Joe Biden will meet President Putin on the diplomatic equivalent of the Zoom call. Biden will warn about Russia’s troop build-up around Ukraine, while Putin will confabulate about Ukraine being a Nato thorn through Mother Russia’s heart.
It will be a poker game. Putin is betting the West will prove unwilling to sacrifice “boots-on-the-ground” defending an Eastern European nation that essentially was part of Russia for centuries. As is typical in today’s geopolitics, it all accompanied by fake news, misleading headlines, bots and outright misdirection – designed to persuade western audiences its hardly worth intervening.
The US intelligence services sound pretty certain Putin intends us to think he will make a play for Ukraine early in the new year. The units around the border can quickly be brought up to strength with reservists. However, defence analysts have pointed out Russia has limited economic resources, and even scarcer military ones, to sustain any conflict with NATO – should it go to Ukraine’s aid. The days of 8000 Soviet tanks and 57 divisions set to roll over the North German plane are history.
What if Putin has no intention of risking his precious military assets on recovering Ukraine? His best hope is persuading the West to let him have it. The troops on the border may be there as part of a maskirovka – the finely honed Russian strategy and art of deception. Let the enemy see one thing while doing something else.
Maybe the maskirovka is to cover joint action with China – the Ukraine being a front for something gruesome in Taiwan. Unlikely.
What else might it be? The threat of withholding gas from Europe? It would certainly cause misery, but with the ultimate consequence of bankrupting Russia if Europe permanently disengages as a purchaser. A move against the Baltics would be met by trip-wire Nato forces and harden European attitudes even more than a move against Russia.
Perhaps war by other means?
Asymmetric warfare is commonly understood as a bunch of Kalashnikov wielding tribesmen swamping a modern, trained army. A tad embarrassing, and an effective way to undermine apparent military credibility. Just because the Americans so decisively “advanced backwards” from Afghanistan has little bearing on Ukraine.
The other end of the military spectrum – hypersonic missiles able to take out US Carrier groups in the South China Seas and Drone Swarms set to clear the beaches of Taiwan are also unlikely. Ukraine is more likely to be conventional slog – should it come to that.
The threat is more likely to come from another vector.
The West’s critical vulnerability could prove our addiction to digitisation. Western Economies have gone fully digital, making them vulnerable as a prime cyberwar target. The Russians, as we know, are no slouches when it comes to cybercrime.
Yesterday I fired up my new company laptop for the first time. It takes longer to boot up because it’s got multiple new security features built in, plus dual factor authentication. I now use a 12 character password – which would take a normal computer decades to break. The delay is a momentary distraction, but its state of the art software keeps my data and the firm safe. Unfortunately, most UK banks are running code nearly as old as me, and I can pretty much guarantee many businesses are running programmes on a host of obsolete operating systems.
Could the Russians be planning a major cyberstrike to break the West’s resilience ahead of any move on Ukraine? Over the last few years they have attacked and brought down many of the key elements of Ukraine’s economy – and made it clear it was them, demonstrating their abilities. Power, transport and banking have all been attacked, serving notice they won’t hesitate to do it again.
If the Russians can add to the current coronavirus gloom and deepen the sense of foreboding about the stagflationary threat, then why not further break the resilience of the West, and deepen the sense of siege mentality by taking out hospitals, transport, power and mobile phones with targeted cyber-attacks? All of these attack vectors have been tried and tested.
We tend to think the West are the good guys when it comes to Cyberwarfare. As well as hacking into Hillary Clinton’s email, we’ve all read about the Ruskies trying to take out US pipelines and infiltrate Nuclear power stations. There is a great story how a Chinese cyber-warfare unit hacked their way into US oil rig systems by means of a back door via the internet menu of a local Chinese takeaway restaurant. Cyber warfare has evolved fast.
But so have the Americans and Brits. Under Trump the Whitehouse made no secret it was hitting back at Russian systems. The most successful cyber attack of all time was under Obama’s watch: the Stuxnet worm in 2010, when the Americans and Israelis took out Iran’s nuclear processing ability, got the programme inside the computers and caused uranium refining centrifuges to spin out of control. Earlier this year, the Israelis did it again – taking out a newer layer of Iranian machines.
The Americans let the information on the attack leak out, apparently convinced Iran would never catch up in terms of its cyberwar abilities. How wrong they were. Iran took out Aramco just a few years later with a strike leaving an image of a burning American flag on every PC in the firm. Since then they’ve attacked banks and infrastructure across the US.
The cyberwarfare risks to markets are perhaps as great as a conventional attack. Crashing western banks could trigger a chain of defaults. Banks are effectively only as strong as their counterparties. Even if most banks have strengthened their cyber defences, even one banking default could spread all kinds of financial mayhem.
If the attack is made on soft-targets, hospitals and transport, the effects could make Covid look like a picnic. Taking out satellites and coms would be equally destructive.
The West is more vulnerable because we are now totally reliant on digital apps and function. If the Russians can collapse our system the damage will be greater than anything we can immediately inflict on them.
But, here’s the key lesson from Pearl Harbour. A cyberstrike may well cripple the West. It could prove a devasting tactical victory. Yet, it would ultimately prove a strategic defeat as you can bet the Americans and the West will get more than even over time.
Keep an eye on the Cyber space.