Nuclear weaponry has become passé. After all, no national leader wants to destroy the world. What would be the gain? Unfortunately, computer technology—once considered a revolutionary and innovative computer device—is being deployed to gain global advantage. Who will become the global leader? At this point, it doesn’t appear to be the United States.

In late November, my home was hit by a “perfect storm” of computer glitches that awoke me to my dependence on computer technology and—in turn—my degree of vulnerability.
First, after I installed a significant upgrade, my computer, which I depend on for business—not just Web surfing, celebrity gossip, news updates and weather reports and “Facebooking”—started acting as if it underwent a technologic lobotomy. Remember how astronaut “David Bowman” (in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”) lobotomized HAL the computer with a screwdriver? I felt like my own computer had become the incapacitated HAL: I couldn’t access the Internet, which I rely on as an information resource, and I couldn’t access my Microsoft Outlook email program, which I depend on for business communications. Nor would my phone messaging system (which is tied into my computer system) send to me messages both critical and urgent.

A couple of days later—in an alarming convergence of calamities—my computer-based television controls suddenly went out of control, and I couldn’t figure out why. All I could bring up on the screen was weird, oscillating patterns. No matter what buttons I pushed, the result was the same. I was in the “Outer Limits.”

“Not only can’t I work, I can’t even watch TV!” I raged at my wife like a suddenly powerless King Lear howling at the storm.

The glitches were worked out, but I found the experience disturbing – and not just because of my own needs; rather, I sensed the larger picture.

When friends visited on Thanksgiving, we got into a discussion about the vagaries of computer technology, and how it might impact both business and government, which have placed critical functions in cyberspace. We speculated on the potential impact of a large-scale computer meltdown, far greater than my personal experience.

From there, coincidence piled upon coincidence: In December came those news reports about the “cyber attacks” launched against WikiLeaks. In the same month (on December 17) Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin, one of the best writers when it comes to international affairs—personally, I feel there is no better—published an article about the kind of havoc that cyber attacks, and a much larger “cyber war,” could wreak.

My after-dinner discussion with friends turned out to be more than just speculation. My experience was microcosmic; it pointed to frightening macrocosmic implications. My computer problems resulted from mere technical glitches. The larger problems can—and most likely will—result from a concerted attack. Indeed, it’s already happening. The WikiLeaks situation revealed that cyber attackers can infiltrate Web sites of multinational corporations. Such attacks can cut off services. But the damage is small compared to an all-out cyber war, which needn’t even address the military. All the attacks need do is focus on the functions that underlie a nation’s economic structure. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to understand the ramifications.

Destroy the Infrastructure
Just how bad could it be? Rubin quotes Richard A. Clarke, author of “Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It” and the former White House counter-terrorism coordinator: “All [of] our critical infrastructure depends on computer networks working.”

This infrastructure includes integrated transportation systems such as trains, planes, and truck dispatchers, as well as the electricity grid. It also takes in supply chains, banks and the stock exchange, as well as hospitals. An effectively launched cyber attack, from a competitive nation state, can be easily accomplished. And the impact would be as immediate and overwhelming as nuclear bomb, said Clarke, who recently conveyed his message to Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute.

How immediate? How overwhelming? Everything would come to a stop in about 15 minutes, reported Clarke.

Scott Barg, director and chief economist of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Units (a non-profit that researches cyber-attack impact), delivered a similar message at a recent Congressional Cyber Caucus in Washington D.C. In his presentation to U.S. Congress, he revealed that a cyber attack could cause “horrendous damage.”

He, too, deploys the nuclear-explosion analogy: Electrical generators would be a prime target, as damage would have enduring effect. After eight to 10 days, as much as 72 percent of an area’s economic activity would come to a halt, Barg revealed. Ultimately, lack of electricity, even in a short spell, would have the same impact level, on an area, as a nuclear attack.

In this fearful new world, an attack becomes less hard to accomplish. According to news reports, in 2007, security researchers cyber-attacked and destroyed a generator. Replacement required months of work; but, by that time, the ensuing economic damage was so encompassing that repair (not only economic but technical) seemed merely a fruitless gesture.

The Main Threat: China
As for the United States, don’t even think about equipment reparation: Most of the nation’s electric generator parts come from India and China. It should expect little support from these nations for replacement parts.

China would be the least sympathetic. China is already regularly breaking into the networks of American companies, “stealing anything of value,” Clarke reported, adding, “We know of 3,000 U.S companies that have been hacked … It is a serious threat to our economy.”

Indeed, as Rubin (through Clarke’s comments) reported, China has established cyber war military units, created private hacker groups and, as Clarke specifically pointed out, “laced U.S. [computer] infrastructure with logic bombs.”

This has made the United States vulnerable to attack. Conversely, China has a huge advantage in the anticipated cyber war: It has developed “the ability to disconnect [all of its networks] from the rest of the Internet,” says Clarke.

This is a defensive measure that negates vulnerability. The United States has yet to develop any plausible defense, says Clarke. As such, it is far more vulnerable than Russia or China to cyber war.

The New World War
All of this doesn’t even take into consideration the high-tech weaponry and communications satellites that function via computer networks. That’s a whole other issue – but, as Mike McConnell, former director of national intelligence, reported to a Senate committee in February 2010, “If we were in a cyber war today, the United States would lose.”

Rather, the immediate focus should be on the economic damage cyber attacks can inflict – which, again, can be devastating. And that points to what I call the “clean war.” That term doesn’t refer to integrity (whatever war in the world’s bloody history has been “clean,” and what country has ever demonstrated any integrity in warfare? Even the United States hands are unclean. Remember Dresden?).

Understand, a “clean war” is different from “The Cold War,” or a nuclear war. “Clean” means no destruction, no nuclear bombs, no “dirty” bombs – no devastation upon the ecology of the world. It enables one country to conquer another without dropping a device with a radioactive half life that will endure beyond human existence. After all, who wants to destroy the world in an effort to gain it?

And that’s the most frightening point about the cyber war, or “clean war”: It removes the threat of nuclear annihilation. The threat of the bomb once kept international adversaries at arm’s length and in an uneasy co-existence. That fragile relationship is now destroyed. No one wanted to press that nuclear button. But with a few keyboard punches, a technologically sophisticated country can change the world, imposing its vision upon others.

Overlooking what should have been Obvious
The first battle front will involve economic decimation, easily accomplished by cyber attacks. Whoever has the better weapons will prevail. And the United States finds itself in a vulnerable position.

And that vulnerability has infested our economic structure like a computer virus. As Rubin so eloquently points outs: “Our vulnerability lies in the characteristic that has made the Internet so attractive—its openness. A would-be attacker can plant ‘trapdoors’ or ‘logic bombs’ – code that can be triggered in the future to cause damage. The attacker can take advantage of flaws in software to propagate so-called malware – computer viruses and worms.”

A Nation Open to Attack
To state it more succinctly, the United States has left itself open to attack, and it hasn’t demonstrated the foresight to develop a defense.

There’s another problem, which has sorely and tragically been underscored by recent events: hyperventilated partisanship. “It’s time we get over our partisanship and tell Congress to defend our cyberspace,” Clarke has said.

As Rubin indicates, this involves a comprehensive strategy to defend civilian infrastructure—including electricity grids and Internet providers—as well as a delicate balance that protects privacy and allows for scanning systems that detect malicious Internet intrusion.

Rubin indicates that we ignore Clarke “at our own peril.” After all, when he was at the White House, he warned both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations about the danger we faced from al-Qaeda. Warnings were ignored, and we saw what happened. Not only were the events of 9/11 tragic, but we continue to endure economic repercussions.

If the United States takes a decade to overcome a terrorist attack, and if it continues on its present blithe course, the empire will not end with a nuclear bang but with an electronic whimper.

Dan Harvey is editor for Positive Publications’ periodicals. He also frequently contributes articles to both Industry Today and Food & Drink Quarterly. A winner of six journalism awards, he has contributed to medical, business and consumer publications for 30 years.