Cyberwar's strategic value 'unclear': Hugh White

Cybers are a cheap and effective deterrent, says one of Australia's leading strategic analysts. But wars will still be fought in the "boring old real world", so let's reconsider nukes.

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"I'm sceptical of the strategic value of cyber offensives," says Hugh White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at Australian National University (ANU).

"Right at the heart of the idea that cyber will play a significant part in future conflicts is the thought that by attacking other countries' cyber assets or infrastructure you can cause them so much pain that you'll really change their conduct in fundamental ways."

But as White told the Lowy Institute in Sydney on Tuesday, that's the way people talked about air power in the decades between the First and Second World Wars.

"[There was] the very strong assumption that the bomber will always get through, and that a bomber dropping 5000 tons of bombs on the other country's capital would simply destroy the morale of the opposing country and force it to concede without the armies and navies ever meeting one another," he said.

[Similarly], by the time the cyber warriors have done their thing, and, you know, you've taken down my air traffic control system and I've taken down your power distribution system, now both countries will be so traumatised that they'll fall back from the conflict."

In World War Two, though, Germany killed 40,000 British civilians in the Blitz, while the Allies killed 300,000 German civilians and "probably" half a million Japanese.

"It made no difference at all to Germany at all as far as I can see. And it made very little to Japan until the nuclear weapons were used, and even then what role the nuclear weapons actually had is hard to assess," White said.

"What we discovered in World War Two is that societies, including western societies, are appallingly tough, and you can inflict terrible damage on them without changing their behaviour."

See also: Cyberwarfare escalation just took a new and dangerous turn

Given that, White says it's "unclear" whether shutting down an air traffic control system, or sewerage system, or banking system, would stop nations from continuing to fight.

"I think the proposition that future conflicts will take place in cyberspace rather than in the boring old real world is just too optimistic," he said.

Cyber is cheap, however.

"You buy a lot of cyber for a billion bucks. Our submarines are going to cost AU$4 billion a copy. I mean, give me a break."

More subs, more troops, more money

White outlined his vision for the nation's defence forces in his new book, How to Defend Australia.

While he acknowledges that military and national command systems would be a "key target in any cyber-campaign", White's core message is that Australia must become self-reliant militarily.

With China's rising ambitions in East Asia, the US may not necessarily prevail, leaving Australia to fend for itself.

The US-Australian alliance might even break down, so politicians and military leaders must get over their "psychological dependence" on that alliance.

White proposes a massive increase in Australia's defence budget from just under 2% of GDP to around 3.5%. That would pay for a larger, two-part defence force.

Read: Cyberwarfare in space: Satellites at risk of hacker attacks

First, a high-level navy and air force would be tasked with denying the ocean to any potential adversary, rather than projecting force as part of the US alliance as it does now.

This would mean getting rid of the large surface ships; doubling or more the number of submarines by buying smaller boats that can be built more quickly; and doubling the number of strike aircrafts.

Second, a "stabilisation force" for the Asia-Pacific region.

This would mean a larger but more lightly equipped army. Out with the tanks, in with the lightly armoured trucks like the Bushmaster, wheeled armoured personnel carriers like the ASLAV, and helicopters.

What about Australia getting some nukes?

Most controversial of all, however, is White's suggestion that Australia should consider getting nuclear weapons.

"If I'm right in my pessimistic view of the future of America's position in Asia, then I believe that our confidence in US extended nuclear deterrence declines," he told the Lowy Institute.

"We can be less confident that the US would defend us from a nuclear threat or attack in future."

White acknowledges the huge costs of nuclear weapons -- financial, diplomatic, moral, technical. And he acknowledges that an Australian nuclear deterrent might not be effective in deterring a potential attack.

He's agnostic on both those issues, and says the nuclear question is "a debate we need to have".

"It's very far from being an argument that says we should acquire nuclear weapons," White said.

"It is an argument that says that the basis upon which we've resiled from nuclear weapons in the past has shifted, along with everything else, as China's power grows, and as America's position in Asia weakens, and we're therefore going to need to go back and revisit that issue," he said.

"I think in the end Australia may end up, I'm not sure about this, but may end up facing a choice between building substantial conventional forces and a small nuclear deterrent capability, or taking what I unkindly and unfairly refer to as the New Zealand option, which is just relying on our geographical isolation to keep ourselves safe, and hoping for the best. "

White's views have been criticised by many other strategic analysts.

"Professor White, the bomb can endanger but not defend Australia," wrote Ramesh Thakur at the Lowy Institute's The Interpreter. "Nuclear weapons have dubious operational utility and discarding treaty obligations would leave the stench of hypocrisy."

The US Studies Centre (USCC) at the University of Sydney wrote that our defence must handle more than just Armageddon.

And at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Michael Shoebridge, director of the defence and strategy program, write that White's plan "simply isn't viable".

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