Cyber Pearl Harbor

Video Series – James Wirtz

The notion that the United States is vulnerable to a strategic surprise cyber attack is often characterized as a “Cyber Pearl Harbor,” and is a mainstay of current strategic discourse. Using the Pearl Harbor analogy to characterize a potential cyber attack does provide insights into a specific political, strategic and operational setting that makes strategic surprise, deterrence failure and war more likely. The United States is vulnerable to a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” and it is possible to anticipate why and how it will occur.

This series of 6 modules will take a look at the strategic setting that makes the United States a potential target of a surprise cyber attack.  Then we’ll provide a brief description of the operational setting that makes cyber attack an attractive element of a strategic surprise, discusses the serious challenges facing intelligence analysts, and what is involved in offering specific event predictions.  Then we’ll conclude with a suggestion on one possible way to at least reduce the likelihood of a cyber-based surprise attack on the United States.

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These videos are derived from, and complement, the following 2017 article by Dr. Wirtz:

James J. Wirtz (2017) “The Cyber Pearl Harbor,” Intelligence and National Security, 32:6, 758-767, DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2017.1294379

Part 1: Introduction

The notion that the United States is vulnerable to a strategic surprise attack bent on incapacitating computational and communication capabilities, which is often characterized by senior officials, military commanders, scholars and the popular media as a “Cyber Pearl Harbor,” is a mainstay of current strategic discourse.

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Part 2: Strategic Setting

Strategic surprise attack allows the weaker opponent to achieve objectives that it realistically could not expect to secure if it faced a military superior. Because the weaker party recognizes its military inferiority, it seeks to develop ways to circumvent a stronger opponent’s military might and reduce the likelihood that it will act on its deterrent threats.

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Part 3: Operational Dimension

For decades, the U.S. military has led its competitors in exploiting the ongoing Information Revolution as a force enabler and has incorporated it as a key component of virtually every facet of its operations, infrastructure and doctrine. Military interest in the Information Revolution emerged as a solution to a long-forgotten strategic problem confronting the United States and its allies in the 1970s.

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Part 4: Intelligence Context

The Cyber Pearl Harbor poses several challenges to the intelligence community, and to the officers and policymakers who have to take effective action in response to an impending attack.

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Part 5: The Way Ahead

The specific details of the Cyber Pearl Harbor cannot be known in advance, but the general outline of the scenario can be described with some certainty by relying on the history of previous instances of strategic surprise attack.

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Part 6: Conclusion

If war fighters are reluctant to credit the synergies created by an information-enabled military as the linchpin of their combat power, then technicians charged with maintaining information capabilities are probably equally reluctant to embrace a strategic-based solution to the problem of cyber surprise attack. For them, technical solutions will beckon as the most effective and appropriate response to cyber attack.

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1 Response

  1. George Hamilton says:

    A good, short general overview.
    Thank you.

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