With drones and code able to harm physical targets remotely, the above will increasingly become the battlefield of the future. Via Situation Brief
One of the more memorable repartees from this last election came during the foreign policy debate when Mitt Romney lambasted President Obama for the country’s shrinking Navy. "You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” Obama responded during the final presidential debate. “Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."
At the time, it made for a nice soundbite. Today, after constant headlines about China’s relentless hacking, that line misses the mark. “It’s not a game of battleship,” Obama noted at the time, and it's not. The future won't be decided by how many tanks we've got, but by how smart our programmers are.
As the Times noted over the weekend, we are on the cusp of a cyber Cold War, a perpetual battle that’s less about controlling the air and the sea but about protecting the ones and zeros crisscrossing the world’s fiber networks. Sure, there’s the increasingly expensive and underperforming F-35 still on the way. But what the U.S. doesn’t have is enough cybersoldiers.
Which comes as no surprise. The U.S. has long lagged in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2010, the country had about 150,000 graduates earn bachelors degrees in engineering, computer science, information technology and math, while China claimed 500,000 and rising. If you look at 2009, there were 40,000 computer science graduates, down from a peak of nearly 60,000 in 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, 33,000 earned degrees in parks and recreation, while 90,000 settled on performing arts. In all, only two percent of the country’s students study computer programming. That number needs to triple to start filling the gap.
So when the Pentagon says it wants to increase its cyber defense team by 300 percent, you have to wonder where those cyber warriors will come from. It isn’t just the government in need of beefing up. Every major company is getting hit and there simply isn’t enough talent to go around, Booz Allen Hamilton vice president Ron Sanders told National Journal. "With each headline we read," he said, "the demand for skilled cyber professionals just increases."
The nation's brightest minds are well aware. On Tuesday, the non-profit organization Code.org released a video espousing the pertinence of a programming education, enlisting the voices of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Sheryl Sanberg, Richard Branson, Bono, the deans of Harvard and Stanford, and Miami Heat basketball player Chris Bosh (among others). It’s a problem so obvious even Ashton Kutcher is on the case.
Quips aside, the White House isn't sitting back idly. Obama has a 10-year plan to develop an army of STEM educators. Last year, he requested money from Congress to retrain 2 million workers for technology jobs through new partnerships between businesses and community colleges, a move which Republicans blocked. But the programmer gap is a problem without short-term solutions and subsequently, the Pentagon’s Cyber Command won’t be filling those 3,100 vacancies anytime soon.
The government’s attitude towards cyberpunks doesn't help either. The government's treatment of Aaron Schwartz, for one, will serve to push talented folks away for some time, and rightly so. And any genius teen coder that may have hacked into the Pentagon as a kid need not apply, even if that’s exactly the kind of marvelous misfit you’d want on your team.
"We do exclude individuals who cross the line, especially advertently," Sanders told National Journal. "We should be letting them know there are things you shouldn't do if you expect to go into cybersecurity." You can be sure China’s recruiting criteria is much more open.
But maybe that’s what the country needs, a nice hard kick from its number one competitor on the other side of the world. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has been its own worst enemy, either through financial alchemy or chasing non-existent WMDs in the Middle East. The nation is spending a ludicrous sum on a fighter jet that will be slower and less agile than promised while making consistent cuts to NASA’s budget like it’s no big deal. (Oh, and then there's the clusterfuck that is Congress.)
So if there is any silver lining from this “new Cold War,” it’s a healthy dose of competition. The last one ushered in Big Science and sent a man to the moon. In that sense, the U.S. needs China just like Federer needs Nadal, like Magic needed Bird. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about war, no matter how cold or how digital. But this is where we are.
The U.S. is isn’t totally hopeless. Like Obama said that night, it’s not about “counting ships.” It’s not even about counting hackers. It’s “What are our capabilities?” After all, it was the U.S. that fired the first shot when it unleashed Stuxnet, the first and only cyberweapon to damage the real world. It is, however, a truly dangerous precedent. And China is ready to play.