In the 1990s, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world began to experience a rapid transformation. It was not unlike several other periods in history — we began to prosper, build, invent, and change focus from a great power struggle to improving living conditions, economies, and the expansion of freedom into new areas of the world. A new age of hope was opening… many thought conflict was to be a distant memory.
In a speech before the World Affairs Council, in Washington, in December of 1992, it was noted by R. James Woolsey, “That we’ve been fighting a great dragon for more than 40 years, and been victorious. But after that, we found ourselves in a jungle full of poisonous snakes. And these are much harder to keep track of.” Bathed in this new-age hope, we would invest in our nation’s technological capabilities, extend our economic reach, and tie everything — literally everything — together. The proliferation of silica based technologies, computer chips, microchips, and computing power was irresistible.
New cyber capacities with the advent of the internet and super-computing allowed our collective capacity as a nation to reach new heights and competitive advantages. And it allowed the expansion of the potential of every person who accessed it. But Newton’s Third Law doesn’t just apply to motion in physics — it came into play in history as well. Sometimes, in our effort to move forward, we tend to inadequately consider the second and third-order effects of our actions.
Today, our entire way of life — our very existence as a civilization — is tied to the electromagnetic spectrum. And if exploited shrewdly by our enemies, this spectrum can be used to confound our nation and our allies. And once more, the great power struggle has returned.
For more than 30 years, the authors have cumulatively studied this two-edged technological progression. On the one hand, we get smarter and more efficient. While on the other, we become less resilient and more dependent on over-connected technologies. It’s imperative that we wake up to these realities because China and our peers are not pacing us to achieve parity, they are pacing us to achieve dominance. And one of the key areas they are planning to dominate us is within the electromagnetic spectrum.
The electromagnetic spectrum is more than just radios and lights, it’s the entire range of activities that happen within this domain — and they manifest in and through all mediums: water, air, land, sea, and cyber. But electromagnetic activities are very distinct from cyberspace, because electromagnetic activities can control cyberspace.
Whether based in Cuba as a diplomat and being made sick from microwave energy, or in the future aboard a ship adrift in the Adriatic and finding the crew deceased while the vessel is intact, the constituent pieces in the electromagnetic spectrum — whither EMP, space weather, lasers and optics, directed energy, or spectrum management — are all branches of the same tree.
Food, water, transportation, sanitation, GPS, medicine — all of the things that make life in our nation convenient and often beautiful are dependent on the fragile technologies that our adversaries know how to break. And these can break simultaneously.
Because of this, we must begin to articulate the electromagnetic family of threats in a way that people can understand. The spectrum is a powerful medium or domain through which many of the world’s activities are managed. And if this is in any way mismanaged, we will all pay a heavy price we aren’t willing to pay.
We have to work together to solve some of the preeminent strategic issues of our time, before any conflict erupts over a perceived American weakness. We must cease the hour and moments we have to change our course and organize for success. This means re-structuring our decision making however necessary. And it is necessary.
As we work together to develop better thinking about electromagnetic threats, we must bring wisdom forward to think of what we’re doing in terms of the other pieces within the spectrum. For government, this means working together to ensure our collective success rather than merely the success of each of us in our own agency.
At this moment, we have a condition where we must deal with both dragons and snakes. It’s not just new varieties of snakes, the big dragons are back and we still have a thousand varieties of old and new snakes. We need to make major changes in to ensure both our government and society are resilient.
Our nation has been very patient. Generations are waiting for us to solve electromagnetic spectrum issues.
When is the last time you flew above New York City or Los Angeles? Have you ever been astonished at how many people are living there? Many millions of course. And they all depend on the electromagnetic domain for their survival.
Those of us serving in government — whether elected representatives, political appointees, experts, strategists, and staff members — we represent tens of millions of Americas. People are counting on us to do the right things and to think rightly.
In 2001, Henry Kissinger wrote: “At the apogee of its power, the United States finds itself in an ironic position. In the face of perhaps the most profound and wide-spread upheavals the world has ever seen, it has failed to develop concepts relevant to emerging realities.”
As we move forward into a world where technology reinforces our fragility and reduces our resilience to man-made and natural disasters, we must aspire to develop relevant concepts to the emerging realities. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re never been afforded a more beautiful opportunity to begin. We have today and we can start tomorrow!
David Stuckenberg is a national security futurist. He is also Founder and Chairman of the American Leadership & Policy Foundation and a United States Air Force Strategic Policy Fellow. His research and views have been recognized world-wide for their contributions to solving complex technical and policy issues and bringing obscure but critical issues to the forefront. As a USAF veteran, combat tested pilot, and corporate CEO, David’s perspectives are regularly sought by the press and leading global institutions and decision makers in government and business. He is completing a PhD in defence strategy at King’s College London and holds a Master’s in politics from The George Washington University. He lives in the American heartland where his most important roles are Husband and Father to his 5 children. David’s views are his alone and do not represent the official views of the DOD or United States Air Force. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
Ambassador R. James Woolsey served as the 16th Director of Central Intelligence.
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