I’ve Been Thinking About Cyber Warfare and Terrorism Lately…

As everyone knows, there was a bomb at the Boston Marathon last week that killed three people and wounded over a hundred.   The suspects turned out to be Chechens and when they grilled the surviving brother he said part of their  motivation was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was surprised to find out they were from Chechnya.  I expected either a Middle Easterner or a homegrown lunatic.  After they caught the one guy, I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that American military action around the world was one of the primary drivers of this.

I’ll spare my personal opinions on whether or not having our military all over the world is a good idea, but I think when something like this happens we need to get past the “holy shit, this is America, things like that can’t happen here!” mentality because it can and has.    We need to accept our vulnerability and find ways to limit that and probably more importantly, decide as a society if what we’re doing is worth the “collateral damage” at home.   We’ve been at war for a little more than 10 years now and for the most part it’s been business as usual for the average American citizen.   We’ve forgotten that sometimes civilians pay the ultimate price in wars – and they certainly have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and everywhere else we’ve been one way or another lately.

We’re not untouchable.   I think we’ve come to the conclusion that we are and that’s made us extremely disconnected from war.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say “we should go show China who’s boss” or “we should turn Iran into a glass parking lot” or something along those lines because to them it’s an abstract concept with no downside except maybe having a football game or Dancing With The Stars interrupted by a news update.    This kind of arrogant thinking leads to complacency and poor decision making.   A lot of that Red Dawn book that I wrote goes on this theme.

Anyways, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about one way we as American citizens really are vulnerable to the outside world:   Cyber warfare.   A handful of countries have the ability to really do a number on our infrastructure and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.     This is a subject I’d like to look deeper into, but I’ll share my thoughts:

–  Russia and China have well-developed (maybe even better than ours) cyber warfare capabilities.   North Korea and Iran have some pretty good capabilities too.   There’s a few other countries out there and even some non-state actors that could do something.

–  We have these other countries’ number too, but these countries are to varying degrees less dependent on technology than we are.    Especially North Korea.  You can unleash an all-out cyber attack on North Korea and it will pretty much be business as usual so they’re basically immune.

– I think cyber warfare allows states new levels of escalation during conflicts.   Actually deciding to fire a shot is a big deal and almost always a huge step.   Sending a virus into a defense network seems less risky.   In a way I guess that’s good because it gives slightly more humane options (shutting off power is better than bombing something) but in a way it isn’t because it allows the actors to go a little further without making the jump over the line into kinetic warfare.

–  Cyber warfare also gives states some room for “plausible deniability” .    If you launch a cruise missile at another country, you can’t very easily say it was kids playing around.  In cyber warfare, it can be disguised to be someone else fairly easily or you can say it was rogue “hackivists” within your country and don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this.

–  With cyber warfare you can do things like shut down the power grid, take down networks, give confusing orders to military units, take down satellites, flood sites with traffic, engage in psychological warfare, blow up pipelines, derail trains, bring down airliners, bring down the financial system and throw a wrench into just about anything else that depends on the internet.    In one particularly scary scenario, some power generators can be overworked until they break and to replace parts and all of that takes months under the best case scenarios.

–  Some of our military hardware that we view as our ace in the hole is extremely vulnerable, such as fighter jets and cruise missiles.

–  We’re all vulnerable in the US.   We lived for about 40 years with Ivan in the USSR pointing nukes at us and then after the Soviet Union collapsed we were made aware of the threat of terrorism.   To be frank, most of America isn’t concerned with Al-Queda deciding to blow up a Wal-Mart in the suburbs and I think most people view that as something that could only happen in the larger cities and near real strategic targets.    Like the idea of total nuclear war during the Cold War, cyber warfare is something that really could reach out and touch all of us personally.

From time to time I think we need to be reminded that we don’t live in a bubble.   I’d rather that reminder come from frank discussion on the possibilities than an actual terrorist attack.




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Increase Your Situational Awareness With Keep In Memory (KIM) Games

I’ve heard a few questions on podcasts recently about how one can increase their situational awareness skills. The phrase “situational awareness” gets thrown around, but little is ever said on how to develop this elusive skill.

Everyone already has some degree of situational awareness or else you wouldn’t be a live to read this, unless you have a very protective mother.    It’s a skill and a mentality that takes a little bit of extra effort to develop.

When I was in the Marines we had a sergeant come to us who was a former sniper.    Snipers must have excellent observation skills and the ability to take a good mental picture.   There’s so much more to being a sniper than just being able to shoot straight and I always thought it was funny when civilians would suggest that they could’ve made it as a sniper because they think they’re good at shooting pumpkins of posts or whatever.

This sergeant introduced us to KIM games, as we were working up towards a deployment to Iraq.   Not to sound over dramatic, but having a keen sense of situational awareness really was an issue of life or death there.   The enemy blends in with the local populace and uses that to his advantage.   Attention to detail and picking out things that weren’t right allowed you to spot IED’s, detect if someone was acting funny or full of shit and other clues about the task at hand.   As infantrymen, we spent a lot of time patrolling through the town which was technically all “indian country” and there were no real secure areas outside of our little base.   We had to constantly be aware of everything going on around us while doing our jobs.

He laid out a poncho and placed about twenty items on it.   We had a minute to look at the poncho and then make a mental note of what was on it and how things were laid out.   Then we went outside to do some exercises or other tasks to break our concentration for a little while.   Then we came back in and tried to draw a picture of what was on the poncho.    The first time had predictable results, but it improved as we became acquainted with how our minds work on these things and had the idea that details are important hammered into our heads.

This can be done at home if you have someone willing to lay out a bunch of items on the kitchen table or something before you go to work and then when you come home try to remember what you saw.   It’s understandable if your spouse doesn’t want to play along with that one though.    You can also do it with the way cars are parked on your block, license plate numbers, the clutter on a coworker’s desk, the arrangement of books on a shelf, anything at the grocery store (i.e. try remembering the order of the aisles or take note of what was in the produce section).   The possibilities to do these kinds of exercises are endless.    You will find yourself getting better and doing a better job of observing your surroundings.

I think many people take things as they see them and don’t pay much attention to these kinds of details.   When you start acknowledging details to yourself, you’ll start analyzing them and it makes it easier to pick out things that aren’t right.    Me, I think I’m hyper-vigilant.  In some social situations I spend most of the night scanning the crowd to the point where it’s difficult to loosen up.   I can usually pick out the people that are going to cause some sort of incident with a good degree of accuracy.

I think this is the ultimate preparedness/survival skill.  Noticing things that aren’t right can give you a few extra moments to react to something or back up that gut feeling you’re not sure if you should act on.   It makes your neighborhood safer if you have an idea of what everybody’s general routines are, what vehicles you typically see, what lights are on (for example, the people who lived across the street from my grandpa knew something was wrong if his kitchen light wasn’t on when they woke up).

It also helps improve your “bullshit detector” abilities when dealing with the people you interact with.   If you think back to the old Encyclopedia Brown books (or any other detective novels if your background in that genre is more distinguished than mine), virtually all of the mysteries were solved by catching someone in a minor detail and then everything else begins to crumble down around them.   When you observe things and make a mental note of it, you never know when it might come in handy or for what reasons.

Keep your head on a swivel.