Incoming: We Are Now in an Era of a Warm War

April 1, 2020
By Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.)

A feeling of déjà vu has emerged following various conference presentations by speakers across the Defense Department and intelligence community. Their top priorities and concerns are similar to the ones that arose during the Cold War.

The first reaction of society at large is to say “same stuff, different day.” But is it?

These headlines sound oddly familiar:

“Freedom of navigation operations denounced.”

“European Defender 2020 to be largest deployment of troops to Europe.”

“New foreign bases built in Southern Hemisphere and on islands in the Pacific.”

“Swedish and Polish defense leaders discuss concerns about Russia.”

“NATO condemns Russian annexation of Crimea.”

“Russian and Chinese spy ships sailing off the coasts of the U.S.”

On the other hand, these new headlines are very different from those of decades ago:

“Missiles fly at 27 times speed of sound.”

“Cyber and electronic attacks used against Ukraine before first troop movement.”

“Unidentified swarms of drones fly over counties in U.S. Midwest.”

“Laser technology able to shoot down satellites.”

It seems appropriate that we might call this period of time a “Warm War.” It’s not as much about the Cold War’s renowned political hostility, spy craft and the threat of nuclear holocaust between the United States and Russia. And it’s not a “hot,” large-scale active war accompanied by the devastation that comes with it. We seem to be caught somewhere in the middle. In today’s Warm War environment, technologies allow countries and loosely formed adversary groups to inflict lasting damage to infrastructure, operations and the social fabric of their intended targets without ever engaging in active combat.

The Internet represents the largest enabler of this threat. By connecting the world through news, social media interactions and viral images and videos, it allows an unprecedented level of access across borders. Usage has a low cost of entry, while social media and mobility feed the constantly changing nature of the Internet. For policy makers and military and industry leaders, this environment demands exceptional creativity to consider the next period of transformation and its unanticipated threats.

Then there’s the use of information as a weapon—the darker uses of the Internet. Misinformation has been around as long as humans, but the Internet makes it an immediate and pervasive threat. Now, neighbors and friends are distributing questionable content, whether they realize it or not. And bad actors take advantage of these individuals by using bots to increase “views” and “likes,” making that content seem more plausible and real.

Moreover, these friends, neighbors, service members and employees increasingly consume information from specific sources because it reinforces their world view. Adversaries know this and construct their campaigns accordingly. Search engine algorithms, for example, can “select” individuals for news based on their online behavior. How often does it happen that reading a news article from one reputable news source one day leads to numerous related ones showing up over the next few days?

The level of mistrust in information exacerbates disagreements between countries, erodes relationships between different groups within countries, and causes problems between people and their governments. High suspicions increase the likelihood of miscalculating another’s intent. Conducting a retaliatory or preemptive attack may seem like a good idea, and seconds can make a difference when successfully responding to threats.

While this Warm War state is a unique environment, lessons from the Cold War are relevant and should not be ignored. First, leaders must communicate truthfully to build the trust that counters misinformation. Frequent communication with friend and foe alike helps control the narrative and avoids leaders being placed in weaker, reactive positions. Second, leaders can enhance relationships and alliances, because strength is greater when working together to counter disparate online threats. Third, it’s important to show restraint when evaluating information as a potential threat and being decisive when it’s time to act.

So, “same stuff, different day” doesn’t exactly apply in today’s Warm War environment because the nature of threats has and will continue to change. But what has not changed is human judgment and the decisions needed to maintain confidence in information accuracy and organizational leadership.

Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), is a vice president in Perspecta’s defense group. She previously served as director of cybersecurity plans and policy for the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Command, and she led the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

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Maj. Gen. Napper's phrase "Warm War" is a valuable tool to organize our thoughts and communication. There are books with less usable information than she packed in this article. Good analysis, well written. Thanks!

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