The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age by David E. Sanger, Crown Publishers, US 28.00, Pp 358, June 2018, ISBN 978-0451497895
Before the dawn of the cyber age, America’s two oceans symbolized our enduring national myth of invulnerability. In spite of the threat of the nuclear war, the United States was having its way on the world scene most of the time. There were exceptions such as the war of 1812, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11. But, we knew the only attack that could threaten the existence of the country would come at the tip of a Soviet or Chinese intercontinental missile, or in the form of terrorists with access to nuclear weapons. In The Perfect Weapon, David E. Sanger argues that, in the cyber age, we have not found that balance that came in the form of the possibility of mutually assured destruction in the nuclear pre-cyber age, and probably never will. He says that cyber weapons are entirely different from nuclear arms, and their effects have so far remained relatively modest. But to assume that will continue to be true is to assume we understand the destructive power of the technology we have unleashed and that we can manage it. History suggests that it is a risky bet.
In the cyber world, there may not have been the equivalent of the Blitz, yet every week seems to bring hints of things to come, as city services became paralyzed by ransomware in Atlanta and patients were turned away after a cyber attack struck the health-care system in Britain. The sheer acceleration in the number of attacks and their rapidly changing goals is one of the several warning signs that we all are living through a revolution, playing out at digital speed. Sanger argues that the lesson of the past decade is that, unless shooting breaks out, it will always be unclear if we are at peace or war. Governments that cannot stand up to far larger powers with conventional armies will have little incentive to give up advantages that cyber weapons offer. We are living in a grey zone, one of constant digital conflict. That is not a pleasant prospect, but it is the world we have created for ourselves. To survive it, we must make some fundamental decisions, akin to ones we made after the invention of the airplane and the atomic bomb – decisions that enabled us to navigate a constant state of peril.
We have to think more broadly about where our security will be found. Clearly, Sanger argues, it is not in an unending cyber arms race where victories over adversaries are fleeting and where the greatest objective is to break another nation’s encryption or turn off its factories. We need to remember that we built these technologies to enrich our societies and our lives, and not to find yet another way to plunge our adversaries into darkness. The good news is that because we created the technology, we have a chance of controlling it – if we concentrate on how to manage the risks. It had worked in other realms. It can work in cyberspace as well.
The Perfect Weapon provides deep insight into the changing nature of global conflicts. The importance of The Perfect Weapon lies in the fact that the reader will wake up to the fact that cyber weapons may be replacing nuclear weapons and the danger cyber weapons pose to global security. With his encyclopedic knowledge, Sanger has produced a book on the shape of coming cyber warfare that will chill your spine. Sanger explains that the future Russian cyber attacks on America in the future will resemble the cyberattack in the 2016 presidential election. Sanger convincingly shows that that the United States has very few options to fight cyber attacks from its enemies like Russia. It is a required reading for students and experts on war and security.