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Primacy: The Real Protection from Cyber Attack

The “sum of all fears” for the American nation for the last five decades was the nuclear weapon detonating on American soil. The threat was then replaced by the terrorist goal of bringing terror to the United States in any possible means of smuggled bombs. The experience of the September 11 attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon made a huge impact on the nation that was never attacked. Combining the effects of all these threats, the fast developing technology paved way for a new domain where there are no boundaries and there are no established norms and laws – the cyberspace. This new front has become the next main threat of every state especially for a highly technological and cyber-dependent country like the United States of America. What makes this domain more complicated is its easy integration with other threats like nuclear, espionage, sabotage terrorism and many more. Thus, at present, the biggest threat to the United States of America is a cyber-attack that can be addressed with a realist solution composed of a combined strategy of primacy and selective engagement in terms of developing, maintaining and projecting cyber operations.

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Developing a capable cyber-technology that can pose primacy is a daunting task. For this time period, this is the best way that the United States can protect the whole country. It is believed that the internet or cyber-domain is a huge space that no one has the power to manipulate and become a hegemon.[2] This is the point of this argument, that the United States should focus on research and development that will provide the “atomic bomb” capability in cyber-warfare. The establishment of the US Cyber Command in 2009 and the Stuxnet Virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear program is very close not to make sense. In the documentary movie Zero Days, the US and Israel officials may have denied the attack, it can easily be summed up that it was a necessary move.  It may not have crippled the whole system, but to think that it has reached this kind of capability is something to think about.  Also mentioned in the movie was a virus or a cyber-weapon which is ten times stronger than the Stuxnet virus. Assuming that these are true, then the United States has already taken the realist standpoint in cyber-warfare. This can be better explained with the Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST), which posits that peace and prosperity are more likely when there is a clear hierarchy of states and one undisputed leader.[3] Although James Forsyth Jr and Major Billy Pope argued on the opposite with this thinking, they still believed that the structure of power will come from a unipolar into a multipolar environment.[4] Therefore, it can be argued that in order to have a controlled cyber-community, there should be a world hegemon first to have undisputed control over the cyber-domain before it can become safe and stable for a possible change of international structure in the future.

In terms of sharing the hegemonic power in the cyber-world, United States should pick just one of the best to become a long-time partner. In this present situation, it can be deduced that the US has already chosen Israel as an ally. A selective engagement like this is both beneficial and cost effective for both countries. In determining the possible countries that can pose a cyber-threat to the US is another aspect to consider. There are three countries who can build up this capability and has a huge interest in the fall-out of the United States – China, Russia and Iran. China right now with its booming economy would want to surpass the United States and become the world hegemon in the near future. A cyber-attack that will affect the economy of the US will give China a great advantage. To develop a capable cyber-technology is arduous, but to maintain it in its primacy has another level of difficulty.

To maintain a dominant cyber-posture is a huge task for the Department of Defense (DoD) to perform. To have primacy in a realist view, the United States needs to be on top of the game to counterbalance China and Russia. These two countries were strongly linked to the cyber-attacks in US technological software and the recent 2016 US National Election.[5] To be primal, the United States should prioritize funding the research and development of cyber technology that develops so fast. The cyber command cannot afford to be left behind in any advances in computer programs, security firewalls, viruses and all aspect of cyber. The DOD should also hire the best programmers and hackers in the US and even other allied countries. It has a great security risk but it was done during the Manhattan Project when German scientists were recruited to create the atomic bomb for the United States. The US today is leading in all technological advances except in cyber. The ILOVEYOU virus that cost the United States with 15 billion dollars of damages was believed to be created by a Filipino college drop-out.[6] It was further believed that this Filipino hacker now works with NSA or Pentagon as a coder. In relation to this, hacking or espionage is another key that can be employed to maintain primacy in cyber. Any developing cyber technology should be monitored and given a counterpart or copied if the technology is sophisticated. The Chinese have been very clever in copying products of the United States like the iPhone and hearsays about the blueprints of the F35. These can be stopped with a strong counter cyber-theft that is planted in the heart of the enemy’s cyber network.

On the other hand, the United States can share limited cyber-technology information with Israel as its cyber-state partner. The only country that shares the enemy with the United States is Israel. Thus, in a position of maintaining the best cyber security, Israel could be leading in developing its own cyber technology. At present, it would be best that the United States maintain a credible partner like Israel who does not have a hegemonic goal but just to survive the threat from its enemies. Developing a credible cyber capability is difficult, but to maintain it is another level of challenges.

As alluded early in this paper, creating a joint cyber operation like the Stuxnet cyber-attack is the best way of maintaining cyber supremacy. One of the downside in maintaining cyber technology is the huge cost, however, with a credible partner, the cost can be minimized at a certain level that can benefit both countries. For sure, enemies like China, Russia, Iran and non-state actors like Al Qaeda and ISIS will do its best to develop a cyber-system that can overcome the firewall or security posture of the United States. As they would do and fail because of the fortified US cyber-security, they would eventually abandon this domain and revert back to the conventional means of doing the physical attack. However, if the US will not come into terms with its security policies and will neglect this very important avenue of attack. The cyber enemies can easily sneak in and create national havoc in the United States even without being identified. The cyber capability of the United States will be maintained to its primacy to post the best offensive cyber operation.

In projecting offensive cyber operations, the United States should mainly perform covert cyber-operations. As there are still no norms and international policies governing the cyber network, the US can play the hardball and project its cyber capabilities to coincide with its national interests. Rovner and Moore believe that the United States could more safely pursue its dual interests of national internet governance and global security without fear of eroding cybersecurity.[7] Although, Forsyth and Pope argued that to project an international cyber capability, the United States cannot do it without interdependency with other states. This is in line with the thinking that playing a great power role in cyber is to think in terms of international order.[8] However, they (Forsyth and Pope) also said that cyber realist authors appear reluctant to embrace the structure-order relationship due to the fact that the domain has yet to be adequately conceptualized within the thicker pattern of international politics. Therefore, in this present situation of the cyber domain, the United States is in the best position to post as the sole hegemon that it can be until that time when there is a glooming international order that can control the cyberspace. In projecting a covert offensive cyber operation, the United States can better control the possible events and keep negative effects away from its political objectives. the Stuxnet operation was proven effective in attaining the political objective of the US while keeping the backslash at a minimum while denying all allegations.

Selective engagement will counter the possible imbalance of projecting cyber operation in international scale. With Israel as the able ally, the United States can employ and deny at the same time any offensive operation to any country. Especially if this country is an enemy of Israel. In terms of the intelligence agency, the Mossad is one or even the best in terms of human intelligence. This could play well in the part of making cyber-attack where there is an air gap to be penetrated or bypassed. This air-gap separates the whole system from the cyberspace and is the crucial part of any cyber operation. A flash drive (with the virus) was transported and used within the system of the Iranian nuclear facility in order to trigger the release of the Stuxnet virus.[9] After the Stuxnet worm attack and the Snowden incident, first world states intensified their cyber defense but surprisingly not their offensive capability and relied on their ally the United States for cooperative security. Rovner and Moore argued that the internet is resilient that it does not need a hegemon is opposite to what these states have done after the two incidents. Unlike Israel, the other countries opted to for international cooperation led by the United States. However, in close scrutiny, this is just saying that the power of cyber technology was given to the United States.

In summary, the control of the cyber domain by a single state or actor is arguably difficult and almost impossible. That was the notion when strategic thinkers were skeptic and cynical with the use of gunpowder and even with the use of flying machines in war. However, the tenacity and the need of men to be secured within itself paved way for fast leaping revolution of arms. This includes the cyber domain where the battle is now being fought. The need for a hegemon may be vague, but the need for the United States is clear. The United States should maintain a credible and strong cyber technology that can be maintained and has all the potential to be used for offensive cyber operations against enemy states or non-states. The goal is clear, however, the duration is dependent. The goal is to be secured from all the threats that encompasses the communists and radical states along with the terrorist groups who have an interest in the downfall of the United States. The duration dependent on the situation when laws and norms are established and can control all actors within the limits and boundaries that can ensure peaceful operation. Until then, the United States should maintain a hegemonic position in order to be safe.


[2] Joshua Rovner and Tyler Moore, Does the Internet Need a Hegemon?, Journal of Global Security Studies, 2017, date accessed: 13 March 2018, https://academic .oup.com/jogs/article-abstract/2/3/184/4082200.

[3] Rovner and Moore p184

[4] James Wood Forsyth Jr and Maj Billy E. Pope, Structural Causes and Cyber Effects, Why International Order is Inevitable in Cyberspace, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Winter 2014, p113

[5] News

[6] Margareth Rouse, Tech Target, I Love You Virus, February 2006, accessed date: 10 December 2018 https://searchsecurity.techtarget.com/definition/ILOVEYOU-virus

[7] Rovner and Moore, p186

[8] James and Moore p116

[9] Zero Days documentary, YouTube, accessed date: 10 December 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGGxqjpka-U


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