How Rus­sia Blew Up America

Want to win a nu­clear war? Build bet­ter hack­ers, not bet­ter bombs

Newsweek - - CONTENTS - BY KEVIN MANEY @kmaney

in the long view of his­tory,

North Korea get­ting a nu­clear-tipped in­tercon­ti­nen­tal mis­sile in 2017 is the rough equiv­a­lent of an army show­ing up for World War II rid­ing horses and shoot­ing mus­kets.

Nukes are so last cen­tury. War is chang­ing, driven by cy­ber­weapons, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) and ro­bots. Weapons of mass de­struc­tion are dumb, soon to be whipped by smart weapons of pin­point dis­rup­tion— which na­tions can use without risking an­ni­hi­la­tion of the hu­man race.

If the U.S. is in­no­va­tive and for­ward-think­ing, it can de­velop tech­nol­ogy that en­sures no ill-be­hav­ing gov­ern­ment could ever get a nuke off the ground. Then we might be able to re­lax and re­turn to laugh­ing at Kim Jong Un for look­ing like the Stay Puft Marsh­mal­low Man topped by a small furry mam­mal.

This is the ar­gu­ment in a new book, Strik­ing Power: How Cy­ber, Ro­bots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules of War, by in­ter­na­tional law pro­fes­sors John Yoo (Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley) and Jeremy Rabkin (Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity). Their book con­nects war and nu­clear weapons to a pro­found shift in the way the world works. We’re mov­ing away from an era of mass pro­duc­tion, mass me­dia and mass mar­kets, and into an era when prod­ucts, me­dia, mar­kets and ev­ery­thing else are hyper-tar­geted and highly per­son­al­ized. I’ve been re­search­ing that broad shift for a book that comes out in March, and it makes sense that it ap­plies to war too.

Eco­nomics of the 20th cen­tury were all about the masses. To be suc­cess­ful, a fac­tory would strive to make the same prod­uct for the most peo­ple. TV net­works sought to air least-com­mon-de­nom­i­na­tor shows that would ap­peal to the broad­est au­di­ence. In such a mi­lieu, big­ger usu­ally won. Economies of scale ruled, “so we saw huge armies with iden­ti­cal mass-pro­duced weapons that were cheap to make and caused a lot of in­dis­crim­i­nate de­struc­tion,” Yoo tells me.

World War I was the first mass-mar­ket war, as re­flected in its grim sta­tis­tics: the Al­lies lost 5 mil­lion killed, 12.8 mil­lion wounded; the Cen­tral Pow­ers lost 8.5 mil­lion killed, 21 mil­lion wounded. “Ef­fi­ciency did not stop with the pro­duc­tion of consumer goods,” Yoo and Rabkin write. “It ex­tended even to the busi­ness of killing.” Nu­clear weapons mul­ti­plied those economies of scale—the goal was to make one big weapon that could wipe out whole ci­ties. No­body ever built a more ef­fi­cient mass-mar­ket killing ma­chine.

Th­ese days, that men­tal­ity is mor­ph­ing. Look at the way Face­book, Google and Ama­zon use AI to learn about you and ef­fec­tively mar­ket di­rectly to you. You’re be­com­ing more of a mar­ket of one in­stead of a plebe in the mass mar­ket. The more tech­nol­ogy can cus­tom­ize prod­ucts, the more we’ll de­mand prod­ucts built just for each of us, not mass-pro­duced stuff made for ev­ery­body.

In the mil­i­tary, this hyper-tar­get­ing is ex­actly what drones are about. In­stead of lev­el­ing a vil­lage, as the U.S. did in Viet­nam (watch Ken Burns’s new se­ries), we would build one ro­botic fly­ing ma­chine to seek out and kill a tar­geted in­di­vid­ual. As Yoo and Rabkin point out, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion de­ployed a soft­ware virus called Stuxnet in 2010 to dis­rupt Iran’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram but do no other dam­age. “Cy­ber­weapons have this pre­ci­sion ef­fect, and they don’t de­stroy any­thing or kill any­one,” Yoo says.

Last year, Rus­sia taught us a les­son in new-cen­tury war­fare, if you can even call it war­fare. Mul­ti­ple in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have con­cluded that Rus­sia es­sen­tially achieved regime change in the U.S. by re­ly­ing on nar­rowly di­rected hacks and hyper-tar­geted in­flu­ence cam­paigns, like those fake ads that Face­book re­cently re­vealed. After nearly 70 years of point­ing nukes at the U.S., Rus­sia just had its most dis­rup­tive im­pact on it with noth­ing but com­puter code.

All of this sug­gests an ap­proach to North Korea that has lit­tle in com­mon with threat­en­ing “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump so quaintly put it. He’d have been barely less in sync with the times if he’d promised to make it rain for 40 days and 40 nights.

In­stead, Yoo sug­gests, the U.S. should go on the of­fense with cy­ber­weapons de­signed to do things like make mis­siles mal­func­tion (which maybe it has al­ready done, but shh!), erase data from mil­i­tary com­put­ers, wipe out the coun­try’s bank ac­counts or even steal and pub­li­cize Kim’s smoochy emails to Den­nis Rod­man. It might send out tiny, barely de­tectable, Ai-driven drones that work to­gether like swarms of bees to take out key as­sets or peo­ple. In the longer run, Yoo says, it’s fea­si­ble to de­velop satel­lite-based anti-mis­sile tech­nol­ogy armed with AI that could watch other na­tions, learn what an im­pend­ing mis­sile launch looks like and im­me­di­ately fry the thing with lasers.

This isn’t to say robot and soft­ware weapons are not dan­ger­ous to the world. They could do enor­mous dam­age and lead to many deaths if they dis­rupt the sys­tems—power, wa­ter, food, com­mu­ni­ca­tions—that keep so­ci­eties go­ing. Some­thing like the mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion de­ter­rent of the nuke era must emerge—a knowl­edge that re­tal­i­a­tion in kind is likely, so ev­ery­body bet­ter cy­ber-be­have. You might call it a new code war.

After nearly 70 years of point­ing nukes at the U.S., Rus­sia just had its most dis­rup­tive im­pact

on it with noth­ing but com­puter code.

At least it seems less ter­ri­fy­ing than won­der­ing if a nutjob is go­ing to lob an atomic mis­sile into Bev­erly Hills.

If the U.S. plays it smart, it will move out of the atomic age of war and into the AI age of war, and ren­der Kim’s nu­clear am­bi­tions mean­ing­less. Of course, that would re­quire lead­er­ship from a tech-savvy, in­no­va­tive and for­ward-think­ing Amer­i­can pres­i­dent—so…oops.

“New tech­nol­ogy gives coun­tries more op­tions than just the tragic choice of ei­ther let this mad­man have a nu­clear ar­se­nal or trig­ger a con­ven­tional war,” Yoo says. Ul­ti­mately, we’d like to be able to say to Kim or any nuke-seek­ing leader: Yeah, go ahead and build that use­less weapon. What are you go­ing to do next, de­velop a cross­bow?

MAK­ING A KILLING WITHOUT KILLING If you be­lieve the mul­ti­ple in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in the U.S. and Europe that have in­ves­ti­gated Rus­sian med­dling in the past U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Putin es­sen­tially achieved regime change without ring a bul­let by de­ploy­ing an army of hack­ers.

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