Last year, the United States found itself inundated with headlines about nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles. For the first time since the Cold War, Americans found themselves living with the specter of a nuclear attack, with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un testing a series of missiles and nuclear devices each aimed specifically at developing the capability to strike the United States.
For many, it served as the first time in their generation that a foreign nation offered so direct a threat to the American people. Sporadic terror attacks notwithstanding, the American public has been insulated from war via a powerful military apparatus and beneficial geography for decades — North Korea’s nuclear program may not be a particularly robust one, but it was a bullet with the American people’s name on it, and that tends to garner some attention.
Despite ongoing debate about how serious Kim may be about denuclearizing, the looming threat of nuclear attack has largely passed, allowing Americans to return to their normal lives… but within the Pentagon, defense officials have not enjoyed any such reprieve. While the North Korean nuclear threat may have waned, another arguably more pressing concern remains. Unlike the nuclear threat, we won’t be able to spot this one coming from space and no amount of firepower can intercept it. We won’t see it being fueled up in reconnaissance feeds. We won’t see massive test detonations in remote parts of the world.
The next weapon of mass destruction the Pentagon is worried about doesn’t have a trigger or a detonator, and nations could foreseeable develop it without the massive investments required of traditional WMDs. Cyber attacks, not nuclear weapons or biological agents, are now potentially the greatest threat facing the American people, and the Pentagon is looking for help developing ways to counter them.
“A new perspective is needed to address this problem,” a new Defense Department solicitation reads. ”It should include independent organizations not anchored to traditional WMD definitional and doctrinal concepts.”
While a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil would be devastating, the largest and most powerful hydrogen bomb in Kim’s arsenal is estimated to be around 100 kilotons. That means that even if Kim managed to deliver that warhead all the way to the center of New York City (which is extremely unlikely, particularly because they never seemed to have perfected their reentry vehicle), you’d be safe at LaGuardia International Airport. A cyber attack, on the other hand, could shut the entire city down in an instant and without warning.
Confirmed Russian infiltration of the American electrical grid earlier this year confirms that this one element of cyber warfare (among many) is already in practice among America’s opponents. However, although the DoD recognizes the severity of this threat, to date, they’re not quite sure how best to mitigate it. That’s where the solicitation comes in.
“DTRA seeks a performer to bring together a group of private industry, Government, and academia entities in a threatcasting/futures workshop- exercise to help fuel that innovative environment, facilitating the deconstruction of the cyberthreat intersection with WMD into manageable component issues capable of allowing development of a potential way forward,” it reads.
The Pentagon hopes to begin moving forward with this project in March of 2019.