Maneuver in the Commons
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Maneuver in the Commons


The annual report to Congress by the Pentagon acknowledged that North Korea will move closer to striking the US homeland if it remains determined to pursue nuclear weapons technology and missile delivery programs. The assessment came weeks after war threats by Pyongyang about exercises by South Korea and the United States. The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently expressed concern over the North Korean KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, which first appeared during a recent military parade, remarking, “we believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States.”

Pyongyang’s strident approach, although generally targeted at rival nation states, poses alarming security challenges in the global commons.

The global commons are areas that no one state controls but on which all rely. The commons comprise four domains: maritime, air, space, cyber. These domains share the infrastructure that underpins a global system of commerce, communication and governance. Recent issues with transit and access points expose the risks of globalization. As a result, each of the domains has become vulnerable to intrusion, exploitation and attacks by competitors.

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The global commons serve as conduits for the free flow of trade, finance, information, people and technology. Even though the responsible and sustainable use of the commons represents the best interests of mankind, certain state actors are conducting or sponsoring various asymmetric forms of maneuver to gain advantages over competitors. “Maneuver” means moving forces into a position of advantage. It can encompass attempts to either circumvent or undermine enemy strength while exploiting weakness, sometimes imposing asymmetric measures that differ from normal modes of operation to achieve disproportionate effects.

The North Korean quest to obtain a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile system to counter the perceived hostility of the United States is a classic asymmetric military approach. In the maritime domain, China seeks to achieve missile saturation by developing multi-dimensional platforms to employ anti-ship cruise missiles. Iran poses an asymmetric threat using swarm tactics.

The perpetrators of aggressive maneuver in the commons may use the inherent ambiguity of international law and weak enforcement to carry out veiled attacks with impunity.

For instance, Pyongyang denied sinking the Cheonan in March 2010, an incident that killed 48 crew members. But a team that recovered debris from the scene matched the evidence to a blueprint of the 7.35-meter torpedo, which appeared in a North Korean weapons export brochure.

In March 2013, Beijing insisted that accusations of Chinese government involvement in recent hacking attacks were part of an international smear campaign, despite a U.S. cyber security report of a persistent state-sponsored campaign. Nevertheless in May 2012 the head of U.S. Cyber Command stated in Congressional testimony that China was responsible for the intrusion into RSA SecurID systems the previous year.

And in May 2012, Seoul accused Pyongyang of jamming the signals from the Global Positioning System in an anonymous disruption of civilian as well as military air and sea traffic. Flights at Incheon and Gimpo airports as well as merchant vessels off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula were forced to use alternative navigation systems. The jamming appeared to emanate from the border city of Kaesong and was believed to be the third such occurrence.

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