In World War II, America was the “Arsenal of Democracy,” its unmatched manufacturing base supplying not only U.S. forces but those of the United Kingdom and Soviet Union.
Seattle’s role was substantial, not only in shipbuilding but in Boeing’s contribution to air power. The Seattle-headquartered company built such iconic planes as the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress bombers. More than 12,700 Flying Fortresses — the name was coined by a Seattle Times reporter — were built, many of them here.
America is not at war with China. But many experts fear a new cold war has begun. And whether cold or hot, some of the most powerful weapons in a new arsenal will come from companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.
Both are important defense and national security contractors, especially through their cloud computing operations. The easy accessibility and efficiency of the cloud is central to our economy now, as well as to military operations.
And that makes cloud companies targets in information warfare, or the so-called digital battlespace.
This was emphasized, even in peacetime, by the recent sophisticated hack of Microsoft’s business email software by a Chinese government-backed group. Before it was contained, the attack affected more than 60,000 public and private entities around the world.
Beijing officially denied involvement. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Bloomberg that China “firmly opposes and combats cyberattacks and cyber theft in all forms,” and that blaming a particular country was a “highly sensitive political issue.”
It’s a sensitive corporate issue, too.
Microsoft opened an office in Beijing in 1992. Since then, according to the company, it has grown across the country under “its strategy of long-term investment and development.”
The company says its “most complete subsidiary and largest R&D center outside the United States is in China.”
Even so, Microsoft was not shy in naming names on its initial post about the latest attack. “Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) attributes this campaign with high confidence to HAFNIUM, a group assessed to be state-sponsored and operating out of China, based on observed victimology, tactics and procedures.”
Hafnium, according to Microsoft, had historically targeted American companies, including defense contractors, to steal information. The attack on Microsoft’s Exchange Server software is a recent development.
This episode is not the first info wars rodeo in recent months. Russian hackers used the Austin, Texas-based software management firm SolarWinds to penetrate government agencies and corporations.
Cloud systems run by Amazon and Microsoft were, at least to some degree, threatened by the attacks. While Microsoft President Brad Smith spoke before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Amazon stayed away, provoking criticism from lawmakers. Amazon has discussed the issue with government officials but has declined to offer public disclosure.
Significantly, both attacks heavily utilized servers based in the United States, allowing them to bypass scrutiny from the National Security Agency (NSA). U.S.-based servers are legally off-limits to the NSA. Private-sector researchers, not the government watchdog, found the hacks.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft corporate vice president for customer security Tom Burt blamed the Exchange hack on “a sophisticated actor that apparently took the time to research legal authority. It knew that by operating from servers in the United States, it could evade some of the U.S. government’s best threat hunters.”
Lawmakers are trying to close the gap with a national data-breach notification law, with bipartisan support.
In the meantime, the attacks from adversaries are likely to continue, engaged in everything from straightforward espionage to implanting malware on critical infrastructure for use should a conflict erupt. Such attacks are easier in an open society such as the United States. Our world leaders in software and other information technology make inviting targets.
Still, the Biden administration is preparing to retaliate. And the U.S. has hardly been just a cyberwar victim. The United States and Israel were likely behind a series of cyberattacks meant to disable or slow Iran’s attempt to build nuclear weapons.
Behind the back-and-forth is the reality that information technology will be a critical “domain” in future wars. It could be as transformative as the machine guns and heavy artillery that stymied offensive armies in World War I, or the armadas of heavy bombers churned out by Boeing for WWII.
One example of this new battlefield: The much criticized and praised F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is more than a stealth aircraft. Its most important attributes may be advanced features that transform the pilot’s situational awareness and ability to strike enemies without being detected. Potential adversaries are using cyberattacks to learn how to defeat it — or in China’s case, to steal enough of the design to copy the airplane.
A war between America and China would be ruinous, but it is not unthinkable. Washington has yet to develop an integrated containment strategy, as happened toward the Soviet Union thanks to diplomat George Kennan’s “Long Telegram.” The Atlantic Council has made a stab at it with “The Longer Telegram.” This aims at a U.S. strategy to provide sticks and carrots for China to join the U.S.-led world order instead of building a competing one.
The admiral commanding U.S. Indo-Pacific naval forces warned senators on Tuesday of Beijing’s ambitions to become the world superpower by 2050. But, he said, an invasion of democratic Taiwan could come much sooner — within six years.
If America stands idly by, the result would be a collapse of our alliance system that encompasses South Korea and Japan. If not, the conflict might be extremely violent and short, even if it didn’t go nuclear. Behind those characteristics of the conflict are advanced technology and the cloud.
And that’s why companies such as Microsoft and Amazon are in the crosshairs.