Features | Security

Maneuver in the Commons

The global commons – vital for trade and other flows – are under growing threat. Action is needed to protect them.

By Scott Jasper for
Maneuver in the Commons
Credit: U.S. Navy

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.

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.

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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.

But assertive state-sponsored maneuver in the commons can occur by other than military means.

Chinese ships operated by civilian agencies routinely manage sovereign disputes in contested waters to avoid escalation. In May 2011, three Chinese ocean surveillance vessels harassed the survey ship Petro Vietnam within the exclusive economic zone claimed by Vietnam. Moreover, in April 2012, two Chinese surveillance vessels intervened to prevent the detention of Chinese fishing boats off Scarborough Reef in the exclusive economic zone claimed by the Philippines. And in April 2013, eight Chinese maritime patrol ships entered the 12-mile zone around the Senkaku Islands, the largest number since Tokyo purchased three of them.

An activist group known as the Cutting Sword of Justice took responsibility for the cyber attack on the Saudi Aramco Oil Company in August 2012. Shamoon malware, which is intended to destroy data, infected some 30,000 workstations, rendering them unusable. A partial photo showing the burning of an American flag was used to overwrite the content of the files. Analysts suspect that Iran may have commissioned the attack to exert influence after the Kingdom’s oil minister pledged to boost production to compensate for sanctions imposed on Iran.

After Russian troops engaged Georgian forces in 2008, six command and control servers disrupted Georgian infrastructure by issuing distributed denial of services commands. The servers and their domains were managed, registered, and hosted by known Russian criminals. Today the state–criminal nexus continues as intruders who commit cybercrimes and cyberespionage use similar methods, for instance Remote Access Trojan tools that include Poison Ivy, Ghost, and PlugX.

Finally, states may use the full range of national power for asymmetric maneuver.

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In 2010, Russia and China jointly proposed to the UN General Assembly the adoption of their International Code of Conduct for Information Security to allow governments to control Internet content. By contrast, other affected parties like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are developing cyber security confidence-building measures to enhance interstate transparency while reducing the risks of conflict from illicit uses of communication and information technologies.

Territorial claims by Beijing in the South China Sea have been delineated on Nine-Dash-Line maps since 1953. The map was officially submitted by China to the United Nations in May 2009 in a diplomatic objection to a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam. In February 2013, the Chinese authorities rejected the attempt by the Philippines to refer Nine-Dash-Line claims to the United Nations in response to tensions at Scarborough Shoal.

In January 2007, China destroyed the Feng Yun 1C Polar Orbit weather satellite at some 500 miles above the earth with a kill vehicle that generated more than 2,000 pieces of debris, which will remain in orbit for decades. This test of a ground-based anti-satellite weapon skirted the prohibitions in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Further exploitation appears in the draft Russo-Chinese treaty on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space proposed in February 2008 that allows ground-based attacks on objects in space.

China is continuing to acquire sophisticated weapons systems from Russia in an effort to gain dominance in the commons. When the Russian Defense Minister visited Beijing in November 2010, China requested S400 Triumf surface-to-air missiles and Sukhoi Su-35 fighters. Then, in April 2013, during his first foreign trip, President Xi Jimping allegedly signed export contracts for four Lada-class submarines and two dozen Su-35 fighters powered by 117 engines, with the likely intent to copy the design, based on previous Chinese behavior.

More recent developments have illustrated emerging forms of maneuver to deny access to or exploit the use of all four domains in the commons. Collaborative mechanisms for encouraging cooperative behavior could reduce the risk of miscalculation and conflict.

Consultations on contentious issues provide a means for dialogue. Take, for instance, the recent talks between President Xi Jinping and General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Beijing on April 23, 2013, on getting North Korea to change its renewed assertiveness. Efforts in multi-national forums can encourage understanding, like the proposed special meeting of foreign ministers from ASEAN and China to hasten progress on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Admiral Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, testified to Congress in support of the United States joining the Law of the Sea Convention to provide a mechanism to resolve maritime disputes. U.S. accession is essential to preventing nations from having an excuse to selectively choose among its provisions. Likewise, the U.S. decision in January 2012 to collaborate with the European Union to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities signifies a commitment to secure space from the risks of space debris and irresponsible actors, echoed in Kyiv in May 2013 by more than 60 delegations in open-ended consultations.

Meanwhile, the Convention on Cybercrime adopted by the Council of Europe and ratified or signed by more than 50 nations including the United States remains the only agreement on protecting against and controlling online crime through cooperation in investigation and prosecution. Despite little international appetite for negotiating new binding instruments, the norms of responsible behavior in cyberspace resonated with Plenary Speakers at the Budapest Conference on Cyberspace in October 2012.

While working to produce cooperative measures, likeminded states can hedge against aggression in the commons through deterrence by threats of retaliation. Fielding of innovative concepts and capabilities more suited for contested environments can enhance survival and success in the face of asymmetric strategies by competitors.

The U.S. Air-Sea Battle Concept is an example. It seeks to counter anti-access and area denial strategies and capabilities that threaten the interests of the United States and its partner nations. The concept offers the potential to strengthen the credibility of conventional deterrence by producing flexible approaches for meeting operational challenges.

The United States sent two B-2 Spirit stealth bombers on a long-duration training mission recently to drop inert munitions on a range in South Korea as part of a concerted effort to deter North Korean aggression. New stealthy, penetrating long-range strike platforms could further enable asymmetric missile suppression campaigns, like the unmanned General Atomics Predator C Avenger.

The first new littoral combat ship, USS Freedom, arrived in Singapore on April 18, 2013, to work with navies in the region and share best practices. Designed to operate in shallow water with interchangeable modules for anti-surface, anti-submarine, and mine countermeasures warfare, this fast, small ship has credible combat capability.

If flexible deterrence options fail to alter assertive behavior, states can revert to deterrence by denial of benefit. Integrated, responsive and resilient systems are necessary to protect forces and infrastructure from exploitation or attack.

During an eight-day attack in November 2012, the Israel Iron Dome intercepted 421 rockets launched from Gaza, proving the viability of short-range missile defense systems to minimize losses. In a commitment of resources, the Pentagon decided in March 2013 to spend $1 billion to add 14 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, to deter the potential launch of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States.

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More sophisticated, redundant, and reliant close-in weapons systems, kinetic and non-kinetic, are required on ships to counter asymmetric threats. In addition to the U.S. Navy Phalanx systems for countering missiles, warships have been issued canister rounds for five-inch guns to shower hostile boats with lethal tungsten alloy pellets.

Prudent measures for cybersecurity emphasize arraying defense in-depth to protect multiple-threat points including network, endpoint, web and email security. President Obama signed an executive order on February 12, 2013 establishing a partnership with private-sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure to improve both information sharing and implement risk-based standards.

The United States with its allies and partners seeks to protect access to and use of the commons by strengthening international norms of behavior and fielding interoperable military capabilities. Deterring asymmetric forms of maneuver by state actors that threaten the global system present daunting tasks. Continued investment in innovative strategies and capabilities is needed to minimize vulnerabilities and maintain advantages over competitors while recognizing that security and prosperity are best achieved through international cooperation and agreements.

Scott Jasper is a lecturer at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and the editor of Conflict and Cooperation in the Global Commons