A Sputnik Moment

2018-01-14T03:18:04+00:00 October 10th, 2017|National Defense|

October 6th, 2017 the Wall Street Journal reports that Russian hackers hacked into the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) hacking system…in 2015! The evidence just keeps piling up.

The Russians for the last hundred years have had big advantages when it comes to mathematics training. Science and mathematics have always been the most prestigious fields, more so than medicine and law, and much more so than business and political science. Given the importance in the Soviet Union placed on nuclear weapons and space exploration, science and math again was emphasized. Government support of students (education was free) and teachers helped the mathematical cream rise to the top. Admissions to the best universities were based on merit.

When invited to a weapons research facility during my 1989 visit to Moscow I was astonished to see in use all the personal computer brands from around the world. Those computers were not supposed to be there because of our technology boycotts of the time. IBM, Apple, no problem.

Some now argue that Russian education has faltered since the dissolution of the USSR. But the best objective measure of their math and computer science progress is their absolute dominance of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) International Collegiate Programming Contest. Since 2000 Russian universities have won twelve of the competitions. Saint Petersburg (yes, Putin’s birthplace) State University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics won in 2017 and six times before making it the dominant school in the competition since the beginning of the competition in 1977. The last time an American university won was Harvey Mudd in 1997.

That brings us to the recent “accidental” collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain with commercial ships in the Western Pacific. I wrote at the time that the Fitzgerald disaster could not have just happened. It could not have happened. Like a bloodhound that ship is designed to sense everything in its surroundings, under the sea and on the surface, in good weather and bad, day or night. Colliding with a huge cargo ship in clear weather, it can’t have just happened. And now we have the McCain.

Just like our Presidential election, it’s most likely the Russians hacked the ships. Your Navy isn’t in position to say this, to admit to such a profound breach in our national defense. But, while we spent billions on launching the USS Ford (seen above), our newest aircraft carrier, the Russians have moved deeply ahead of us in the inexpensive cyberwarfare of this century. They aren’t bothering with the last-century technology so smartly delivered by our own military-industrial-congressional complex.

You might blame the North Koreans or the Chinese. Indeed, the McCain had just paraded by Chinese held Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. But the North Koreans don’t have the technology and the US-China trade relationship precludes this sort of blatant aggressiveness.

And how about the mysterious attacks on our Embassy personnel in Havana? Apparently headaches, hearing loss, and brain damage were the consequences for our diplomatic corps there last December. During the George W. Bush years we did play spy-versus-spy games with the Cubans. But, this stinks of another Russian hi-tech attack. President Obama did much for bilateral relations. We have suffered wounds, but so did the Canadian Embassy personnel. It makes no sense for Cuba to attack Canadian citizens in that way – Canada has been one of Cuba’s biggest tourism clients even during the U.S. boycott. Cuba also has a large Russian influx for tourism. Indeed, in 2011 we were sitting with the manager of a Spanish owned beach resort in the Varadero area, and he had a Spanish-Russian dictionary on his desk. Russians are in Cuba in droves.

Why Russia and why now? Putin needs international distractions to mollify his own people’s domestic dissatisfaction with the performance of their $50-a-barrel-of-oil economy. Worse yet, we have no trade interdependence with the Russians. Our current sanctions serve Putin, not us or world peace.

Our Chief of Naval Operations has left on the table the possibility of our ships being hacked. But, we will probably never know for sure. And it may be better not to know that the casualties of the Fitzgerald and the McCain are the first victims of cyberwarfare. When I served in the U.S. Navy in the 1970s we “accidentally” dropped bombs on Soviet cargo ships in Haiphong Harbor. They objected, but were cordial enough not to commence WW III. I’m not all sure our current leadership in the White House