State-sponsored hackers from North Korea and Iran have been stealing our nation’s military secrets and seek to upend our economy by targeting corporate interests like Sony as well. These rogue nations continue developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. The recent Ebola outbreak revealed serious gaps in our response to biological threats, like the anthrax and ricin attacks we have already seen. And terror networks from the Islamic State to al-Shabbab grow ever more brutal, turning our own decency against us with made-for-TV acts of unspeakable horror.
The Cold War and its simple Risk board strategy is history. The threats facing our nation have evolved. Our military must retool to face them. That is the work of the new Congress — and is one area where gridlock simply isn’t good enough.
A 21st century defense strategy means beefing up cyber security, nuclear missile defense, bio-weapons defense and sustained investment in our Special Forces.
Cyber weapons are the first truly global weapon ever invented, immune to borders and impervious to any of our physical defenses. The past few years have seen an exponential increase in cyber attacks on government and private computer networks that run nuclear power plants, dams and other critical infrastructure. Last year alone the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team responded to 228,700 incidents and intrusions.
Intelligence officials have been “alarmed by how quickly Iran has managed to develop its cyber warfare capabilities.” North Korea employs as many as 6,000 hackers that experts describe as "remarkably committed” to cyber warfare. With this cyber tsunami already breaking on our shores, Congress must fund new cyber defense initiatives and update our laws on intelligence sharing and integrated public-private cybersecurity.
These rogue nations aren’t just focused on cyber attacks; they continue developing nuclear weapons and missiles that threaten our cities. North Korea has recently succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that fits atop its Taepodong-II ballistic missile. Iran could be less than a year away from fielding an ICBM. And it is only a matter of time before terrorists gain control of a loose nuclear weapon from the former Soviet arsenal or elsewhere.
Thankfully the United States has deployed a missile defense shield, protecting us from this threat. Soldiers, on alert 24/7/365, rely on space-based sensors and radar stations around the globe to detect and track enemy missile launches towards the United States. Once detected, interceptors based at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or Fort Greely in Alaska are launched to destroy the missile in space at the top of its trajectory.
While critics like to claim this job is too difficult for our military, the various technologies making up the missile shield have had an 80 percent success rate in shooting down ballistic missiles in tests since 2001. The part of the system that protects our homeland, the ground-based Midcourse Defense, has successfully shot down targets in nine different tests.
But this decade-old system needs to be upgraded and expanded to address the growing threat. Congress should fund more interceptors, both at the existing launch sites in Alaska and California and critically at a new site on the East Coast, closer to Iran. More radar installations are needed to better track enemy missile launches and accurately differentiate between real threats and countermeasure decoys. We need to continue building a next-generation missile defense system faster than our enemies can develop next-generation missiles to threaten us.
The same is true with defenses against deadly bioweapons. The speed at which Ebola has engulfed West Africa and spread to our shores should be a cautionary tale. We see how the slightest missteps in protocols allowed the disease to spread. And Ebola is far easier to treat and far less infectious than bubonic plague or smallpox. Terrorists watching the panic unfold are undoubtedly scrambling to obtain these agents. That’s why Congress must ensure the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is fully funded, on red alert, developing the necessary defenses.
Finally, our Special Forces remain central to any viable anti-terror strategy. In the post-Iraq/Afghanistan world, these are the American boots that somehow always seem to end up on the ground. We must sustain and expand the U.S. Special Operations Command to meet the ever-increasing demands our nation places upon these heroes.
The threats we face are growing at an alarming rate. The effect of a major cyber, nuclear or biological attack could be devastating and far-reaching. It is critical that Congress act now to increase funding for key defensive technologies and systems so that the U.S. and our allies can stay ahead of this ever-increasing threat.
Paul J. Pena is a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army. He lives in Albuquerque.