The first phase of Russia’s war with the U.S. is already starting, and while it is not easily visible, it’s incredibly dangerous.
After months of speculation regarding the hacking of recent political figures and organizations, the U.S. intelligence community announced last week that it is “confident” that Russia is responsible. Wikileaks, a primary publisher of the documents resulting from those hacks, is making it evidently clear that it is targeting U.S. politics. U.S. intelligence officials also acknowledge that Russia may have a hand in hacks of various state electoral systems.
The massive amounts of information contained in the hacks is nothing short of damning, especially for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but the releases could also be one of the largest information warfare campaigns in history. While there are questions over whether diplomatic differences between the Kremlin and Washington could go from harsh words to actual combat, kinetic attacks may not be necessary to constitute a dangerous conflict.
“There are certain modes of conflict going on now,” Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow specializing in modern security threats at New America, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. The current conflict between the U.S. and Russia may not fit a traditional definition of war, but it is a conflict nonetheless, he added.
The Pentagon spends massive resources and manpower preparing for a potential conflict in every part of the world. Each potential conflict is planned in phases, from one to five. Phase One involves the events leading up to military action, followed by the action itself in Phase Two, which leads to major combat in Phase Three, stabilization efforts in Phase Four, finally ending with civilian control in Phase Five. It is only in the last ten years that the Pentagon has explored another phase of conflict: Phase Zero, or military operations that can act as preventative measures for future conflicts.
The U.S. has typically viewed Phase Zero operations as an opportunity to fight insurgencies and the war on terrorism, but some adversaries, like Russia, view it as an opportunity to actively undermine the U.S.
“We do not see Phase 0 as primarily a state of conflict between the United States and other powers,” wrote Navy Lt. Robert “Jake” Bebber in a January piece for Foreign Policy. “Yet it is here, in our ‘Phase 0,’ that our adversaries are conducting military operations designed to deter and ultimately defeat the United States.”
Phase Zero military operations can include covert actions, like the hacking of politically important U.S. figures and institutions and engaging in information warfare.
“Let’s be clear, this is a Russian attempt to manipulate public opinion,” said Singer, regarding the series of hacks.
Cyber and information warfare campaigns exist in the so-called Phase Zero, he explained, meaning “you can lose cyber war before the real one begins.”
Singer and his co-author August Cole touched on the Phase Zero issue in their recent novel, “Ghost Fleet,” which imagines a near-future U.S. war with China and Russia. U.S. forces, due to their over-reliance on technology and computer networks, are dealt a quick and disastrous blow by the nascent China-Russia alliance, forcing the U.S. to adapt after already losing significant momentum.
In effect, the U.S. loses the Phase Zero portion of the war.
The U.S. undoubtedly is in a better offensive position within the cyber domain as compared to Russia, but Singer noted that the advantage also comes with vulnerability, due to the “wired” nature of the U.S. military and economy. The U.S. is essentially a very powerful glass cannon when it comes to the cyber domain.
Vulnerabilities also exist in the information warfare side of the equation, or what Russia refers to as “active measures.” Russia has been actively engaged in stealing secrets and using them in propaganda since the founding of the Soviet Union, but today, cyber capabilities make active measures campaigns easier and much faster.
The U.S. intelligence community no longer engages in the same kind of active measures operations, according to John Schindler, a former NSA officer and current national security scholar. Any kind of “black propaganda” fell out of fashion in the U.S. during the Cold War, he told TheDCNF.
“Covert action is very tightly controlled by the White House (and Congress), we’re simply not free-wheeling with it like Moscow is,” said Schindler. “Therefore they’re winning, as you can see with their not-very-covert influence on our election. They no longer care that we know what they’re up to, which is novel — and alarming.”
Like Singer, Schindler also said that U.S. offensive cyber capabilities are strong, but he added they are not necessarily being properly utilized to counter Russia’s information warfare.
“Both sides collect signals intelligence [and] cyber — NSA is very good at this. Only the Russians are weaponizing their intelligence for political effect,” said Schindler. “We need to get in the game.”
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