Cybersecurity is more critical than Biden’s rescue plan
President Biden should be applauded for acknowledging that Russia’s on-going cyberattacks require decisive action. Indeed, the long-term effects of such attacks would cause more harm than the economic weaknesses induced by COVID-19. But a defensive approach to these threats would be too little too late; in fact, a meek Biden counter would embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin to mount increasingly brazen raids. This is because the U.S. has taught Russia that, when it comes to Russian cyberattacks, the U.S. is like a dog without teeth — rarely barking, never biting.
Now is the time for the U.S. to bite Russia with a full set of sharp teeth. The U.S. has the knowledge and resources not only to thwart Russia’s attacks, but also to become the dominant cyberspace superpower.
In the past decade, Russia used the internet to interfere with our 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and sent its cyber soldiers to attack thousands of public institutions and corporate America with little evidence of a U.S. response.
The Biden administration must fully realize that we are living in a new age, the age of cyberwars. In such an era, Russian computer keystrokes send stealth internet soldiers to attack the inner working of our banks, hospitals, transportation centers, communication systems and government agencies to upend our way of life — our democracy, free commerce and freedom of the press.
So far, Russia has had the upper hand, playing brilliantly to its strengths. With a weak army and an economy smaller than Italy’s, Russia has a relative advantage in cyberspace. Long experienced in such guerrilla wars, Putin is comfortable invading the U.S. through computers in order to harm the U.S. and gain a stronger standing on the world stage.
In this situation, the U.S. must use an offensive strategy, attacking Russian cyber targets to tell Putin “No more.” But Biden and his advisers are generally inclined to be nice, to use defense to protect themselves from intruders. Of course, Russia could retaliate against U.S. offensive measures, but there are no other viable options. As well, an anti-Russia offensive would benefit the U.S. against other countries. It would deter countries such as China and Iran (and even friendly countries) from messing with its cyber grid.
The Biden administration could start by developing a comprehensive national cybersecurity blueprint. It must realize, as did Putin years ago, that cyberwars are a new phase in international relations. It should therefore consider building a coalition with other countries akin to NATO. It must also build an organizational structure capable of carrying out the administration’s strategy. Instead of talk and scattered efforts thus far, a more focused, hard-nosed approach would produce better results. Also, the U.S. should take an inventory of its existing and potential capabilities in cyberspace technologies and match them with its needs.
For example, the U.S. owns 17 national laboratories, many of which are ready and able to support its cybersecurity. It invests over $12 billion annually in the labs, which employ thousands of first-rate scientists. Many of the labs have a smattering of cybersecurity projects, institutes and centers, with little or no coordination. The Biden administration could and should harness the capabilities of these labs as part of an overall cyberspace strategy.
Furthermore, augmenting the skills of the labs with the unique expertise of Silicon Valley and leading universities would increase the speed of accomplishing the U.S. cyberspace goals.
This approach should be familiar to President Biden, his national security advisers and the Department of Defense. It was successfully developed and deployed by the U.S. during World War II to build the atomic bomb, which ended that war. The present cybersecurity threats to the U.S. are as important and urgent now as the war needs were then.
This is a critical juncture in U.S. history. Commander in chief Biden has a critical choice to make regarding Russia’s cyberattacks: be defensive or offensive. This is not the time to be on the defense, because it will invite more Putin attacks. Rather, it is the time to mount a big offensive, outpace Russia and become the world cyberspace superpower.
In the long run, developing and implementing a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy is even more important and lasting than Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
The alternative is Russian occupation of our cyber grid.
Avraham Shama is the former dean of the College of Business at the University of Texas, The Pan-American. He is a professor emeritus at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico. He has published a book and many articles about Russia. His new book, “The Dawn of Cyberwars,” is forthcoming.