According to new Pentagon cyber strategy, state-of-war conditions now exist between the US and China

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The war room of our cinematic nightmares (Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "Dr. Strangelove," 1964)

China has been pre-approved for kinetic war strikes from the United States at any time.  Let me explain how.

First off, what the strategy says (according to the same WSJ front-page article Mark cited yesterday):

The Pentagon has concluded that computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force.

In other words, if you, Country C, take down or just plain attack what we consider a crucial cyber network, we reserve the right to interpret that as an act of war justifying an immediately “equivalent” kinetic response (along with any cyber response, naturally).  If this new strategy frightens you, then you just might be a rational actor.

Theoretically, this means if you, Country C, hack and disable the net of crucial US installation X, America can fire missiles at your equivalent civilian or military installation (C)X.  Of course, by responding to your “act of war,” we are initiating our own war response, meaning we’d need presidential approval to start the fireworks.  But the key point is, by hacking something that we consider to be national security-sensitive, you leave yourself open to a state-of-war response from the United States at the time of its choosing, so be forewarned.

Which facilities fall into this “eye for an eye (or ear or . . .)” category?  Naturally, America shouldn’t say, so as to keep Country C in the dark (the essence of deterrence), but putting us in the dark (take-down of an electric grid) is an obvious one cited in the WSJ piece.  Again, theoretically, almost anything can be described as crucial on some national security scale (e.g., hack Monsanto in just the right way and maybe you put US food security at risk), because the small damage that you, Country C, choose to create in our nets might easily cascade into something far larger, so virtually any hack emanating from your networks puts you at risk for a US war response.

Second, while we can make all sorts of arguments about various governments and non-state actors giving us a hard time, we all know that the only player that matters in this new strategy is China.

Third, we know that China does this sort of hacking all the time.  On any day of the week, we could justify any number of equivalent attacks – kinetic or otherwise.  Inside the national security community, you hear about these attacks constantly, ones that involve all sorts of sensitive companies, technologies, networks, etc. Virtually all of them track back to China, truth be told.  I’m not talking secrets.  This is common knowledge – day-to-day operational reality.

Time to jump, doc. ("The Fugitive," 1993)

Point being, China is now essentially – and at all times – pre-approved for retaliatory strikes, unless it were to immediately cease and desist all such hacking activity. Of course, the Chinese government can always pretend that any hacking attacks that are traced back to its nets reflect non-state activity beyond its control, but this new cyber strategy basically pre-loads the Tommy Lee Jones response from “The Fugitive”:

Dr. Richard Kimble: I didn’t kill my wife!
Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: I don’t care!

This is an destabilizing step sideways in our security relationship with China:  Beijing is being warned that its current and ongoing behavior can – at any time – be loosely interpreted as an act of war.  Whatever situations or crises ensue, that handy rationale is now always sitting in the Pentagon’s back pocket, because I guarantee you, whenever big-war enthusiasts want to play that card, the Defense Department will be able to muster – at a moment’s notice – a long list of Chinese hacking attacks over the previous X hours/days/weeks/months.  So when the President asks, “Do we have evidence that the Chinese are targeting us at this time for cyber-sabotage?”  The answer will always be yes.

Are you fearful of a “Guns of August” scenario erupting with the Chinese?  You should be now.  “Archduke Ferdinand” currently lives inside virtually any US cyber network you care to cite.

Black Swan, meet the War Powers Act, because now nobody is in charge of initiating great-power war anymore.  It has all been pre-approved – like some credit card application.

The timing here on the announcement (long anticipated) couldn’t be better:  with Osama dead, America is now empowered to launch pre-emptive/retaliatory kinetic strikes against China whenever the President wants to.  Talk about a quick strategic pivot!

Just so you’re clear on what I’m implying here:  This is the most serious scaling back of the threshold of great-power war since Mutually Assured Destruction – in its meme-like spread across the 1960s/1970s – basically outlawed such high-end conflict for all but the strategically nutty.  Fast-forward to Sarah Palin being sworn-in on 20 January 2013 and you’ve got yourself a real party.

Of course, all such concerns will be downplayed by sensible national security types:  “This doesn’t mean . . ..”  But the underlying capacity will remain.  Hence the resulting need for some sort of “arms control” understanding with the Chinese (brought up at the end of the solid WSJ piece) before one or both sides blunders the world into a shooting war nobody wants.

Bottom line?  Strangelove has re-entered the Building.