Dr. Cyber Strangelove
Updated: Feb 11
The world is experiencing historic debt levels, incompetent & ineffective leadership, insatiable big corporate greed and bellicose actions from autocratic countries. Because of the multitude of uncontrolled unfolding global crisis, nationalism is thriving fueled by the perceived or actual threat of encirclement. For this reason these simultaneous and interconnected crisis are creating the inevitability of conflict, traditional or otherwise, notably cyber.
The Cold War triggered a nuclear arms race between the US and USSR resulting in the increasing danger of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation any of which could inadvertently start a nuclear war. The establishment of hotlines had mostly mitigated that risk. However 21st century technological advances have removed an advanced warning of an impending cyber-attack.
During the Cold War to deter the enemy from thinking he can launch a nuclear first strike and “decapitate” the decision-making leadership for the purposes of avoiding a retaliatory strike, protocols were established so that a lower ranking officer could authorize such a retaliatory strike. Nonetheless, despite all the sophisticated technology then and now, the final decision always resides with the human element.
As clearly demonstrated in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove (1964), also known as “How I Stopped Worrying and Learn to Love the Bomb” directed by the late Stanley Kubrick, a lower-level officer portrayed brilliantly by Sterling Hayden as General Jack Ripper, circumvented the nuclear launch safety system and initiated a nuclear attack on the USSR.
What made Dr. Strangelove so fascinating is that it included a rogue American general who started a nuclear war instead of the usual stereotypical cardboard cutout characters from the Soviet Union and China. Present-day those characters are updated which include Russia, China, Iran or North Korea.
Fast forward to a tumultuous, present-day 21st century. Despite the safeguards on high-tech weaponry, the weak link is the reliance on the psychological stability of those authorized to launch those weapons. Now replace everything referencing “nuclear” with “cyber” and you have a 21st century déjà vu scenario in which real life could imitate art.
Much has been written and discussed about foreign elements, both sovereign and rogue using cyber-weapons. Little has been discussed about the US capability of inflicting far more damage on our enemies via cyber-warfare and that our reluctance is not because of lack of political will, rather using proportional responses will provide our enemies an insight into what cyber-weapons we possess.
Never mentioned is whether a high-ranking, ultra-nationalist in the US military with authorized access to the most sophisticated cyber-tools might take matters into his own hands. It’s not beyond one’s imagination that we already have a 21st century General Jack Ripper with strong nationalist feeling who may be prodded from his “sleeper” mode to take unauthorized direct action.
The mainstream media has inundated us with endless stories of cyber-attacks from “the usual suspects” namely Russia, China, North Korea and Iran conducting cyber-attacks against American government, business and society. Even military leaders and policymakers scream about the possibility of a cyber-Pearl Harbor.
What makes the present-day cyber threat far more perilous than the nuclear missile launches of yesterday is that there’s no lead time nor time to identify and react to the incoming threat or recall the cyber-weaponry. A cyber-attack that comprehensively shuts down all essential military and civilian infrastructure and services will wreck apocalyptic chaos in the target society. Because government and corporate credibility have fallen to such low levels they will be unable to mitigate next crisis which would require citizen compliance. The end-result: anarchy.
In an unauthorized cyber-attack the Cold War’s “Big Board” is obsolete. Hotlines for cyber-attacks would be nothing more than damage assessment. By the time the Russian, Chinese, North Korean or Iranian ambassador is invited to view the unfolding of events, the show will already be over.
For this reason the entertaining scene when in the movie the Russian ambassador is invited to view the “Big Board” as verification and seriousness as the situation unfolds of the unauthorized attack will be missing from the 21st century version. From a cinematic perspective it would be a shame because the entertainingly outspoken General Jack Ripper character would be reduced to a cameo appearance.
Democracy’s Dark Side
A counter-intuitive perspective suggests that this scenario is more like to occur in the US rather than China, Russia, North Korea or Iran. Why? A high-ranking officer in an autocratic government faces severe punishment (aka execution) if he abuses his position and acts independently without authorization.
Although there is severe punishment in a democracy, relieve of command, loss of pension and a long (and eventually commuted) prison sentence is the more likely result of such general exceeding his authority. For this reason ironically the freedoms in a democracy allow the freedom to act not in the best interests of the citizenry he has been entrusted to protect. All the most crystal clear, cleverly crafted and unambiguous safety protocols won’t prevent a motivated high-level insider from abusing his authority. A prime example of this is in Dr. Strangelove with respect to Plan R; the failure (and impossibility) to control the imperfect and determined human element.
Back to the fictitious upcoming remake entitled Dr. Cyber-Strangelove, the cyber-weapon will have already infected the target’s systems so the challenge will be to find the “recall” code or remote “kill switch” to halt the attack.
Adding to the heightening present-day tensions during this Dark Winter II is that sadly and more terrifyingly from a political perspective President Muffy played by Peter Sellers in the original, made far better decisions to resolve the crisis than the present-day, impossibly divisive White House political leadership.
Circumventing safeguards to access and weaponize cyber-tools is far easier to achieve than the authorized series required through an established of chain of command to launch a missile. Several of our intelligence agencies have admitted the theft of highly classified cyber-programs. It’s not because these agencies are incompetent, rather that stealing a program via some keystrokes and a flash drive requires immediate direct access, not a series of authorizations which would raise red flags while attracting far less attention than fueling an intercontinental missile.
In a the most divisive American society since the Civil War, disturbingly one wonders how many General Jack Rippers are out there who feel justified in undertaking this dark task.
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The Cerulean Council is a NYC-based think-tank that provides prescient, beyond-the-horizon, contrarian perspectives and risk assessments on geopolitical dynamics and global urban security.