25 December 2020

Will China Turn Off Asia’s Tap?


NEW DELHI – Even after Asia’s economies climb out of the COVID-19 recession, China’s strategy of frenetically building dams and reservoirs on transnational rivers will confront them with a more permanent barrier to long-term economic prosperity: water scarcity. China’s recently unveiled plan to construct a mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, better known as the Brahmaputra, may be the biggest threat yet.

China dominates Asia’s water map, owing to its annexation of ethnic-minority homelands, such as the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang. China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, where it has targeted even tiny Bhutan, has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins – a strategy that hasn’t spared even friendly or pliant neighbors, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and North Korea. Indeed, China has not hesitated to use its hydro-hegemony against its 18 downstream neighbors

Dushanbe Reinforces Border After Tajik Militants Appear In Video Fighting In Afghanistan

By Farangis Najibullah, Mumin Ahmadi

Tajikistan has deployed additional troops along its southern border with Afghanistan after Afghan authorities claimed a group of militants from Tajikistan played a major role in the Taliban's capture of an Afghan district last month.

Afghan officials said the majority of the militants who overran the Maymay district in the northeastern Badakhshan Province in November were foreign fighters, including militants from Tajikistan.

They said the fighters belong to Jamaat Ansarullah, a militant group founded in Afghanistan by Tajik national Amriddin Tabarov in 2010.

In early December, a 10-minute video appeared on social media purportedly showing Tajik insurgents fighting against Afghan government forces in Maymay, which borders Tajikistan.

While RFE/RL cannot verify the authenticity of the footage, some of the fighters can be heard speaking a distinct Persian dialect spoken in Tajikistan.

Footage depicts them killing men in Afghan Army uniforms and civilian clothes and setting fire to a building. At the end, the militants show off weapons and vehicles they purportedly seized from the Afghan troops.

Afghan authorities confirmed the killings and the destruction in Maymay. Media quoted local residents who said militants, "particularly the Tajiks," killed and beheaded Afghan soldiers.

List Of Names

A(nother) New Afghanistan Strategy, Based on an Old Approach

By Anthony Cowden

A previous article asked some critical questions about the current U.S. strategy for Afghanistan.[1] Some of the questions that are still worth asking – and answering – include the following:

Is pride an appropriate national interest? No – but it is an unavoidable one and will always be considered.

To what degree should past efforts be relevant in crafting a new strategy? Past efforts should not be central in crafting a new strategy; however, they do require addressing, if for no other reason than to garner support for the new strategy.[1]

What does history have to teach us about fighting in Afghanistan? Any reading of Afghanistan history would suggest that conducting military or counterinsurgency campaigns in that country is a losing proposition: since Alexander the Great, no outside power has been able to bend Afghanistan to its will, and the U.S. is no exception.

Is the U.S. seriously considering a negotiated settlement with the Taliban? We know the answer to this question now. The negotiations took a path eerily similar to that taken by the U.S. in negotiating with North Vietnam: negotiate with the Taliban without the Afghanistan central government (ACG), and then dictate the terms to them. 

China’s Influence on Conflict Dynamics in South Asia

China has embarked on a grand journey west. Officials in Beijing are driven by aspirations of leadership across their home continent of Asia, feelings of being hemmed in on their eastern flank by U.S. alliances, and their perception that opportunities await across Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. Along the way, their first stop is South Asia, which this report defines as comprising eight countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—along with the Indian Ocean (particularly the eastern portions but with implications for its entirety). China’s ties to the region are long-standing and date back well before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. A cargo ship navigates one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, near Hambantota, Sri Lanka, on May 2, 2018. (Adam Dean/New York Times)

However, around the beginning of this century, Beijing’s relations with South Asia began to expand and deepen rapidly in line with its broader efforts to “go global.” General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ascendance to China’s top leader in 2012 and the subsequent expansion of Chinese activities beyond its borders—including through Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—have accelerated the building of links to South Asia in new and ambitious ways.

In South Asia, China has encountered a dynamic region marked by as many endemic problems as enticing opportunities. It is a region struggling with violent conflict, nuclear-armed brinksmanship, extensive human development challenges, and potentially crippling exposure to the ravages of climate change. But it is also one whose economic growth prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was robust, that has a demographic dividend, and whose vibrant independent states are grappling with the challenges of democratic governance—including the world’s largest democracy in India. China’s expanding presence in the region is already reshaping South Asia, which is simultaneously emerging as an area where U.S.-China and regional competition plays out from the Himalayan heights to the depths of the Indian Ocean.

The Intelligence Dilemma

By George Friedman

The United States claims to have identified a massive Russian intelligence operation meant to gather secrets from corporations and the government. The line from Washington is that the operation was successful, but precisely what the Russians gathered has not been disclosed. That the operation was known makes it ineffective from Moscow’s point of view. So the Americans are scrambling to find out how much the Russians saw, and the Russians are scrambling to find out how long U.S. counterintelligence was aware of the operation.

The fact that it was announced recently doesn’t necessarily mean it was only recently detected, and that it was detected doesn’t necessarily mean the United States hasn’t been feeding Russia a trove of misinformation. It is therefore difficult to know who won and who lost. Espionage has always been a complex game, whether carried out by spies on the ground, or by hackers in a comfortable and secure office.

This is a timely reminder that not only do all nations engage in espionage but they are morally obligated to do so. Every government is responsible for national security. It is perhaps its highest obligation. In order to carry out the duty, it must know the capability and intentions of all governments, hostile or friendly. The saying that nations have no permanent friends or permanent enemies but only permanent interests means that leaders must be aware of what other leaders intend. It is essential that they dismiss the statements of the leaders of other nations, since those statements might be utterly sincere or profoundly deceptive. Any government must do all it can to determine the hidden intents and capabilities of others. And since friends can become enemies well before they issue a press release, intelligence is a practice of expecting the worst while hoping for the best.



Around 2013, U.S. intelligence began noticing an alarming pattern: Undercover CIA personnel, flying into countries in Africa and Europe for sensitive work, were being rapidly and successfully identified by Chinese intelligence, according to three former U.S. officials. The surveillance by Chinese operatives began in some cases as soon as the CIA officers had cleared passport control. Sometimes, the surveillance was so overt that U.S. intelligence officials speculated that the Chinese wanted the U.S. side to know they had identified the CIA operatives, disrupting their missions; other times, however, it was much more subtle and only detected through U.S. spy agencies’ own sophisticated technical countersurveillance capabilities.

The CIA had been taking advantage of China’s own growing presence overseas to meet or recruit sources, according to one of these former officials. “We can’t get to them in Beijing, but can in Djibouti. Heat map Belt and Road”—China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure and influence initiative—“and you’d see our activity happening. It’s where the targets are.” The CIA recruits “Russians and Chinese hard in Africa,” said a former agency official. “And they know that.” China’s new aggressive moves to track U.S. operatives were likely a response to these U.S. efforts.

China’s Green Gambit


CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Can US President-elect Joe Biden walk and chew gum at the same time? If walking is managing domestic pressures, and chewing gum is pursuing a balanced foreign policy, the answer is far from clear. The tension between bipartisan calls to contain China and the imperative of cooperating with Chinese President Xi Jinping on climate change is a case in point.

Biden plans to marshal a broad alliance of democratically-minded Pacific and European countries to check China’s expansionism. In Xi’s view, however, China may be able to use the promise to cooperate on climate change as a source of leverage with which to thwart Biden’s containment strategy, especially in light of Republican opposition to climate action and hostility toward China.

The stakes could not be higher. Humanity faces a truly calamitous future if the world’s two largest economies – and largest CO2 emitters – don’t commit to cooperating to address climate change. And yet the grim prospect that the Sino-American geopolitical competition will hamper climate cooperation is rarely discussed in either Washington or Beijing.

In the United States, the prevailing wisdom is that curtailing its CO2 emissions is in China’s self-interest. Beyond being the world’s largest CO2 emitter, China is the world’s leading consumer of coal, accounting for 52% of global use. And high levels of pollution threaten to undermine support for the ruling Communist Party among a growing Chinese middle class demanding a cleaner environment. International pressure is also mounting.

China’s Military Actions Against Taiwan in 2021: What to Expect

By Ying-Yu Lin

Following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, many observers asserted that China-U.S. relations, what have been strained most of the time over the past three years, will see a change, most likely for the better. Judging from the moves taken by the militaries of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait in the air and under the sea during this same period, we can see that both sides have taken advantage of the occasion to expand their respective freedom of movement – whether through military exercises made known to the public or in clandestine ways.

As an ancient Chinese proverb says, “People who know about military affairs tend not to be bellicose.” Taiwan will not recklessly start a war. However, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is no longer the underdog that it was before the most recent round of military reform that kicked off at the end of 2015. We have to guard against the possibility that Beijing might opt to use force against Taiwan because of pressure from within and without. Currently, China mainly resorts to a gray zone strategy, as manifested in the dispatch of military aircraft and ships to harass Taiwan on a regular basis. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of more direct actions. It’s also possible that Taiwan’s reaction time to threats from the PLA may become insufficient due to its inactivity in the face of the constant presence of PLA aircraft and ships around Taiwan.

Basic Rules for the PLA in Its Quest to Subdue Taiwan

How 2020 Shaped U.S.-China Relations

by Elizabeth C. Economy, Yanzhong Huang, Jerome A. Cohen, Adam Segal, and Julian Gewirtz

U.S.-China relations sharply deteriorated in 2020, after three years of steadily declining under the Donald J. Trump administration. Beijing and Washington traded blame over the coronavirus pandemic, remained locked in a trade war, competed over 5G networks and other technologies, and clashed over rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among other issues.

U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden will have to grapple with all these challenges from day one in office. In this roundup, CFR experts look back on significant moments over the past year that will have lasting implications for the relationship and offer their analysis on what to expect under Biden.

The Trump administration’s China policy is here to stay—or at least that is what the administration is working furiously to ensure. In the weeks following the U.S. presidential election, administration officials have undertaken a flurry of activities related to Tibet, Taiwan, financial decoupling, and the South China Sea, adding to the vast edifice of initiatives they have constructed over the past four years. While it may appear as though these last-minute actions will make it more difficult for the incoming Biden administration, the opposite is true. The more policies the Trump administration piles on, the greater the leverage and range of options it leaves for the Biden team. 

China Has an Imperial Overstretch Problem

by Gordon G. Chang 

China’s “Project of the Century” may not last another decade.

In late 2013, Chinese ruler Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, two routes connecting China to Africa and Europe.

Since then, the Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, as the projects are now called after being combined, has been extended to everywhere on the planet. China, for instance, has poured tens of billions of dollars of Belt and Road loans into Venezuela. A Chinese party is building a $3 billion container port in Freeport, fewer than 90 miles east of Florida’s Palm Beach. There is even a Polar Silk Road, announced in January 2018. More than a hundred countries are participating in the Belt and Road.

Now there are signs that Beijing, by withdrawing lending support, is backing away from what has been called the world’s biggest development plan.

The Financial Times, relying on a database from Boston University, noted that lending by two of China’s so-called “policy banks,” China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China, “collapsed,” falling from $75 billion in 2016 to $4 billion in 2019. These two institutions, instrumentalities of the Chinese party-state, extend most of Beijing’s offshore development lending.

Not everyone agrees China is pulling back so sharply. For instance, Tristan Kenderdine and Niva Yau, two researchers, think the Chinese policy banks are lending “differently, not less.” Yet they agree BRI is troubled. As the pair wrote on the Diplomat site this month, “In practical geoeconomic development terms, China’s Belt and Road policy in Eurasia is failing.”

Cyber-war on Israel? ‘Iran-linked’ hacker group claims to have breached Israel Aerospace Industries’ servers

Reports suggest the group published a list of users on Elta Systems servers on the Dark Web, including Camila Edry, head of cyber projects development. The information leaked was not classified, but rather showed names and computer registries. It could suggest, however, that the group has access to more sensitive information. 

IAI is currently investigating the potential breach, though it claims no classified or damaging information was stolen.

Reports on Pay2Key from cybersecurity firms Check Point and Whitestream suggest the group hacks servers and holds information hostage in exchange for ransom. Some experts have cited the most recent cyberattack against Israel as being from Iran, as the Whitestream report links Pay2Key to the nation by tracking a past ransom payment to an Iranian cryptocurrency exchange. 

“We followed the sequence of transactions, which began with the deposit of the ransom and ended at what appeared to be an Iranian cryptocurrency exchange named Excoino,” the report states.

Lotem Finkelstein, head of cyberintelligence at Check Point, also suggested Pay2Key has “advanced capabilities” and could have breached IAI servers days or even weeks before announcing themselves, but insisted the attack is primarily financially motivated, though ransom demands have yet to be made.

The future of work in Europe

By Sven Smit, Tilman Tacke, Susan Lund, James Manyika, and Lea Thiel

Beyond COVID-19, automation, migration, and shrinking labor supply are shifting the geography of employment.

Discussions of the labor outlook in Europe are understandably overshadowed by the impact of the novel coronavirus crisis. A discussion paper by the McKinsey Global Institute, The future of work in Europe (PDF–1MB) takes a longer-term view of the situation, to 2030.

Through a detailed analysis of 1,095 local labor markets across Europe, including 285 metropolitan areas, it examines profound trends that have been playing out on the continent in recent years and will continue to do so in the future. These include the growth of automation adoption, the increasing geographic concentration of employment, the shrinkage of labor supply, and the shifting mix of sectors and occupations. Some of these trends may be accelerated by the pandemic; our research suggests that a substantial number of the occupations that are likely to be displaced by automation in the longer term are also at risk from the coronavirus crisis in the short term. We also find that the effect of automation on the balance of jobs in Europe may not be as significant as is often believed.

Local labor markets across Europe before the pandemic experienced a decade of growth and divergence

Calling SolarWinds Hack ‘Act Of War’ Just Makes It Worse


WASHINGTON: As lawmakers struggle to come to grips with the sheer magnitude of the Solar Winds hack “pretty clearly” executed by Russia, some have suggested the cyber intrusion amounts to an “act of war.” It’s not, multiple experts told us — and framing it as one could make it harder to solve the actual cybersecurity problem, which is as insidious as it is pervasive.

“The depth and scope of the intrusion is breathtaking,” former top congressional intelligence staffer Andy Keiser told us. “The scariest thing is the Russians could, and almost certainly will, lurk deep inside of our nation’s most sensitive networks, including those holding nuclear secrets, for months, if not years.”

“I doubt the real impact will ever be disclosed by the government, even if it could be known,” one cybersecurity expert told us on condition of anonymity. “In many cases, they will need to start over to secure these networks.”

Why is this hack so bad? Hackers believed to be working for the KGB’s successor agency, the SVR, slipped malware into a regular update to SolarWinds’ widely used cybersecurity software. That gave them backdoors into every network using those SolarWinds tools, from private companies to the Pentagon to the builder and maintainer of nuclear weapons.

Now, SolarWinds wasn’t used on networks carrying classified data, only on unclassified ones. Indeed, the Energy Department on Friday clarified earlier reports to stress that the hackers only accessed “business networks” and “has not impacted the mission essential national security functions of the Department, including the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).” One insider confirmed that the nuclear weapons networks are separate from those “front facing” business operations networks, saying there is no need for anyone to “have their hair on fire.”

Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world

By Dickon Pinner, Matt Rogers, and Hamid Samandari

Aferocious pandemic is sweeping the globe, threatening lives and livelihoods at an alarming rate. As infection and death rates continue to rise, resident movement is restricted, economic activity is curtailed, governments resort to extraordinary measures, and individuals and corporations scramble to adjust. In the blink of an eye, the coronavirus has upended the world’s operating assumptions. Now, all attention is focused on countering this new and extreme threat, and on blunting the force of the major recession that is likely to follow.

Amid this dislocation, it is easy to forget that just a few short months ago, the debate about climate change, the socioeconomic impacts it gives rise to, and the collective response it calls for were gaining momentum. Sustainability, indeed, was rising on the agenda of many public- and private-sector leaders—before the unsustainable, suddenly, became impossible to avoid.

Given the scope and magnitude of this sudden crisis, and the long shadow it will cast, can the world afford to pay attention to climate change and the broader sustainability agenda at this time? Our firm belief is that we simply cannot afford to do otherwise. Not only does climate action remain critical over the next decade, but investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and the transition to a lower-carbon future can drive significant near-term job creation while increasing economic and environmental resiliency. And with near-zero interest rates for the foreseeable future, there is no better time than the present for such investments.

Boris Johnson Delivered Brexit, but Britain’s Future Remains Just as Uncertain

In July 2019, three years after British voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, Boris Johnson assumed the office of prime minister amid a political environment characterized by anger, turmoil and confusion. But despite initial stumbles that led some observers to predict he would suffer the same dismal fate as his predecessor, Theresa May, Johnson managed to deliver on his promise to renegotiate the U.K.’s transitional withdrawal agreement with the European Union. His subsequent decisive victory in December 2019 parliamentary elections, built in part on successfully wooing traditional Labour party voters, gave Johnson the ample majority he needed to see his deal through.

Before Johnson’s triumph, Brexit had been a disaster for both of the country’s two main political parties. The referendum outcome immediately brought down the Conservative government of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who had called for the vote in the first place. His successor, May, was felled by her inability to get the transitional withdrawal agreement she negotiated with Brussels through Parliament, mainly due to opposition by extremist Brexiteers within her own Tory ranks. For his part, Johnson achieved what May couldn’t, arriving at a transitional Brexit deal that a majority of Parliament could agree on—and then building on that majority in December 2019.

Left of Launch: Artificial Intelligence at the Nuclear Nexus

Lindsey Sheppard

Popular media and policy-oriented discussions on the incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) into nuclear weapons systems frequently focus on matters of launch authority—that is, whether AI, especially machine learning (ML) capabilities, should be incorporated into the decision to use nuclear weapons and thereby reduce the role of human control in the decisionmaking process. This is a future we should avoid. Yet while the extreme case of automating nuclear weapons use is high stakes, and thus existential to get right, there are many other areas of potential AI adoption into the nuclear enterprise that require assessment. Moreover, as the conventional military moves rapidly to adopt AI tools in a host of mission areas, the overlapping consequences for the nuclear mission space, including in nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3), may be underappreciated.

AI may be used in ways that do not directly involve or are not immediately recognizable to senior decisionmakers. These areas of AI application are far left of an operational decision or decision to launch and include four priority sectors: (1) security and defense; (2) intelligence activities and indications and warning; (3) modeling and simulation, optimization, and data analytics; and (4) logistics and maintenance. Given the rapid pace of development, even if algorithms are not used to launch nuclear weapons, ML could shape the design of the next-generation ballistic missile or be embedded in the underlying logistics infrastructure. ML vision models may undergird the intelligence process that detects the movement of adversary mobile missile launchers and optimize the tipping and queuing of overhead surveillance assets, even as a human decisionmaker remains firmly in the loop in any ultimate decisions about nuclear use. Understanding and navigating these developments in the context of nuclear deterrence and the understanding of escalation risks will require the analytical attention of the nuclear community and likely the adoption of risk management approaches, especially where the exclusion of AI is not reasonable or feasible.

The Strategic Implications of SolarWinds

By Benjamin Jensen, Brandon Valeriano, Mark Montgomery 

Recent reports of a widespread Russian cyber infiltration across U.S. government networks are a sign of how great power competition will play out in the 21st century. The new great power game is digital, with the shadowy alleys and cafes of Cold War spy games replaced by massive data breaches and compromising corporate security. Some strategies see this world as dominated by offensive operations—but the SolarWinds case suggests the opposite. The U.S. Cyber Solarium Commission, on which we served, found that the future of cybersecurity strategy will come to rely on layered cyber deterrence to enable defensive denial operations, international entanglement and cost imposition when aggressors defy the norms of the international system. The SolarWinds hack emphasizes the importance of implementing this strategy. 

It’s simpler to list the agencies that have not been caught up in the SolarWinds infiltration, which was run by Russian hacking group APT29 under the umbrella of the Russian intelligence services, the SVR. So far, only the intelligence community has not been reported to have been breached. 

The goal of the operation seems to have been exfiltrating data and digital tools from the targets. The attackers leveraged a supply chain vulnerability in the ubiquitous SolarWinds Orion program, a network monitoring tool, to insert backdoors into an update released months ago. Once inside the networks, the attackers were able to maintain a permanent presence. The operation was so devastating that SolarWinds employees appear to have engaged in a massive sell-off of stocks prior to public disclosure of the vulnerability.

The impact of the operation is currently unknown. Overall, the likely outcome seems similar to that of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) hack of 2015, which resulted in the massive theft of unclassified government data by China but without any clear use of the data by Beijing in the subsequent years. But the SolarWinds breach will have second- and third-order effects. Already, FireEye’s Red Team tools have been stolen through the SolarWinds vulnerability and reused by the attackers on other systems. The key thing to remember at this point is that the operation seems likely to be able to extract information but not insert or destroy data within government systems. 

Commentary: US paid dearly for absence in Pacific trade deal

By Cai Daolu

SINGAPORE: When Donald Trump’s administration withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, giving teeth to the new “America First” policy, observers sat up.

Under former President Barack Obama, the US had sought to pursue deeper regional integration in the Asia-Pacific through greater investments, business links and more, enabled through this ambitious free trade agreement.

Although Obama could not pass the TPP through Congress, it was Trump’s subsequent withdrawal, coupled with his electoral promises emphasising an agenda of restoring American primacy, that stoked concerns over isolationism and disengagement from the Asia-Pacific.

The decision by Trump has had a huge economic cost, both for the US and the rest of the world, proving not only how the rhetoric of isolationism has been economically counter-productive but also inimical to Americans’ interests.

Recent estimates suggest the TPP would have increased annual real incomes in the US by US$131 billion in 10 years.

Similar benefits are also substantial for the world, where the gains in global GDP would have been US$492 billion dollars.

In contrast, the implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), by the rest of the TPP parties, is estimated to cost the US US$2 billion in real income losses by the same year.

More Bandwidth for Software Developers Means Better Apps for SIGINT/ISR/Comms


Software Defined Radios (SDRs) will help transform the speed of military situational awareness, enabling faster decisions and action. SDRs do so by digitally converging the means by which the military communicates—data, voice and video over various spectrum assets—into a single comms device, ideally making the modes available simultaneously to both command and warfighters in the battlespace. Designing devices and applications which make that capability possible in an easy and cost-effective way is, however, a challenge that Motorola Solutions (MSI) has recently taken head on.

Applications that the military craves for software defined radios (SDRs) include better performing SIGINT (signals intelligence), ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), and communications techniques. But the introduction of advanced capabilities in these areas, as well as others like radar and satellite communications, require software developers to have the ability to access frequencies beyond 6 GHz and up to 30 GHz without the need for external hardware.

Without such capability, the ability of software developers to write new applications for SDRs is limited. And while software can be written for the processor fairly easily, the ability to alter the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) firmware so that it’s adaptable for developing sophisticated applications is often restricted for third-party developers.

Those drawbacks have now been erased with development of the NS-1 transceiver from Motorola Solutions. The properties of the NS-1 transceiver are based upon a new Microwave radio-frequency integrated circuit (RFIC) chipset developed by Applied Technology, which is an engineering group within Motorola Solutions. The in-house designed, custom Microwave RFIC has a frequency range from 2 MHz (or lower) to 30 GHz and a programmable instantaneous bandwidth of up to 1 GHz. Those specs provide a means for application development in a software-only environment, even when processing 1 GHz of spectrum.

Two Years into the Government’s National Quantum Initiative

By Brandi Vincent

Monday marked two years since the passage of the National Quantum Initiative, or NQI Act—and in that time, federal agencies followed through on its early calls and helped lay the groundwork for new breakthroughs across the U.S. quantum realm.

Now, the sights of those helping implement the law are set on the future. 

“I would say in five years, something we'd love to see is ... a better idea of, ‘What are the applications for a quantum computer that’s buildable in the next five to 10 years, that would be beneficial to society?’” the Office of Science and Technology Policy Assistant Director for Quantum Information Science Dr. Charles Tahan told Nextgov in an interview Friday. He also serves as the director of the National Quantum Coordination Office—a cooperation-pushing hub established by the legislation. 

Tahan reflected on some foundational moves made over the last 24 months and offered a glimpse into his team’s big-ticket priorities for 2021. 

Quantum devices and technologies are among an ever-evolving field that hones in on phenomena at the atomic scale. Potential applications are coming to light, and are expected to radically reshape science, engineering, computing, networking, sensing, communication and more. They offer promises like unhackable internet or navigation support in places disconnected from GPS.

Ending the “Dual-Hat” Arrangement for NSA and Cyber Command?

By Robert Chesney 

President Trump’s recent move to install a set of lame-duck “acting” officials atop the Pentagon (that is, officials who have neither been nominated to hold these offices on a permanent basis nor put forward for Senate confirmation) continues to spawn major policy changes. The latest? An eleventh-hour push to end the “dual-hat” arrangement pursuant to which the Director of the National Security Agency also serves as the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Whether and when to take that step has been the subject of discussion for many years, and is subject to certain “certification” requirements imposed by Congress a few years ago. Few expected to see a push to resolve it now. But here we are, and here’s what you need to know.

1. Background: Why does the “dual-hat” arrangement exist, and why is there a debate about ending it? 

For a thumbnail sketch of how Cyber Command came to be co-located with NSA, and jointly commanded by NSA’s Director, see Mike Sulmeyer’s 2017 War on the Rocks post addressing this issue ( and note that, subsequent to Mike’s article, Cyber Command became a combatant command in its own right, separating from its prior status as a sub-unified command within U.S. Strategic Command). The idea boiled down to this: in order to accelerate Cyber Command’s development, it was collocated with the NSA (and not just in the physical sense, but with shared personnel, tools, and infrastructure). The “dual-hatted” leadership model followed naturally from that intertwined structure.

The assumption in the early days was that, of course, one day Cyber Command and the NSA would separate. The idea all along had been to incubate Cyber Command, not to develop a novel hybrid model that would be sustained indefinitely. After all, few at the time anticipated that the intertwined institutional relationship might actually be optimal for a world like ours today, in which great power competition manifests in the form of constant adversarial cyber-domain activity below the level of armed conflict (with the lines separating espionage, covert action, and military activity much less apparent than in conventional physical spaces). Most observers assumed that Cyber Command eventually would break off on its own, once it developed sufficient personnel, accesses, and other operational capabilities of its own (and capacities to replenish these things on a sustained basis).

The SolarWinds Breach Is a Failure of U.S. Cyber Strategy

By Robert Morgus

On Dec. 13, news broke that Russian intelligence operatives had successfully breached networks of the U.S. government and private entities by leveraging a vulnerability in the SolarWinds network management system. The campaign, which had been active for months before discovery, is a blow to U.S. Cyber Command’s strategy of “defend forward”—the notion that the U.S. should work to identify adversary cyber campaigns early and disrupt them closer to their source by disabling attacker infrastructure or other disruptive activities.

It is indisputable that defend forward failed to prevent the campaign As Nicholas Weaver notes in Lawfare, “This attack started in March with the first exploitation starting in April. Either [the U.S. intelligence community] didn’t know about it—a failure in the ‘defend forward’ philosophy—or they did know about it, in which case they also failed to defend forward.” But does this mean that defend forward is a failure? 

Not necessarily. But the SolarWinds breach does reveal an important gap in the strategy that the U.S. must understand and address. For defend forward to be fully effective, the agent conducting defend forward must have perfect intelligence; to disrupt an adversary campaign, the U.S. must know about the adversary campaign in the first place. But perfect intelligence is not realistic: Intelligence is a process of painting as comprehensive a picture as possible with limited information. So the United States must expect some adversary campaigns to slip through the cracks. And as the conventional wisdom goes, “in cyberspace, the offense has the upper hand.” The attacker needs to succeed only once, while a defender must prevent all attacks in order to be successful. 

Bullets, Beans & Data: The New Army Materiel Command EXCLUSIVE


WASHINGTON: When the Army first fielded heavy-duty 3D printers to its combat divisions, maintenance troops were excited by the potential to print their own spare parts in the field, on demand, without waiting days, weeks, or months. But they quickly ran into a problem. Before you can print out a part, you need a detailed 3D model of it, and for most parts, those models don’t exist.

So Gen. Ed Daly, the new chief of Army Materiel Command, is pushing to get 5,000 parts on file in the next 12 months – and that’s just the beginning. The crucial element in all this — lots and lots of accurate, well-organized, and easily accessible data.

In the 20th century, America’s military might depended on our ability to move millions of tons of physical stuff around the world. In the 21st century, it might depend just as much on our ability to move 1s and 0s.

Look at the Army’s experience with 3D printing. “When I was the Chief of Ord, I was very frustrated” about the new 3D printers in the Army’s deployable machine shops, Daly told me in an hour-long interview. “That was a great piece of equipment to be fielded, but I felt like units at the tactical level, the allied trades personnel in maintenance companies, were being constrained because they didn’t have access to a data repository.

“Unless they built the 3D printer design themselves it was very, very difficult,” he said. “We’re finally starting to realize that that equipment is only as good as the enabling … digital thread. You need… a data repository of all the 3D drawings,” Daly said.

Daly’s immediate goal? “It’s a race to 5,000,” he told me. “I want to get to 5,000 [parts] by the end of calendar year…5,000 National Stock Numbers in the data repository that can be used at the tactical edge.”

That requires buying data rights from contractors, creating 3D drawings of old parts where none now exist, and even taking apart entire helicopters and armored vehicles to analyze every component. Then the Army has to take all that data, clean it up, put it in standard formats, and upgrade its global communications networks to make it accessible even to combat units deployed in war zones overseas.

Military AI Is Bigger Than Just The Kill Chain: JAIC Chief

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WASHINGTON: The military must not get so fixated on using artificial intelligence to find targets that it neglects its wider applications from deployment planning to escalation control, warns the new director of the Pentagon’s Joint AI Center.

In recent field tests, an experimental Army AI was able to find targets in satellite imagery and relay target coordinates to artillery in under 20 seconds. Accelerating the “kill chain” from detection to destruction this way is a powerful but narrow application of artificial intelligence, said Lt. Gen. Michael Groen, a Marine Corps intelligence officer who took over JAIC on Oct. 1st.

Misapplication of AI raises the potential for “rapid escalation and strategic instability,” Groen told an NDIA conference last week. “That’s really where we have to…go back to ethical principles.”

The principles for military AI promulgated in February, Groen noted, require artificial intelligence to be “governable.” To quote that policy (the emphasis is ours): “The Department will design and engineer AI capabilities to fulfill their intended functions while possessing the ability to detect and avoid unintended consequences, and the ability to disengage or deactivate deployed systems that demonstrate unintended behavior.”

West Point accuses more than 70 cadets of cheating in worst academic scandal in nearly 45 years

WASHINGTON – More than 70 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were accused of cheating on a math exam, the worst academic scandal since the 1970s at the Army's premier training ground for officers.

Fifty-eight cadets admitted cheating on the exam, which was administered remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them have been enrolled in a rehabilitation program and will be on probation for the remainder of their time at the academy. Others resigned, and some face hearings that could result in their expulsion.

The scandal strikes at the heart of the academy's reputation for rectitude, espoused by its own moral code, which is literally etched in stone: 

“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

Tim Bakken, a law professor at West Point, called the scandal a national security issue. West Point cadets become senior leaders the nation depends on.

"There’s no excuse for cheating when the fundamental code for cadets is that they should not lie, cheat or steal," Bakken said. "Therefore when the military tries to downplay effects of cheating at the academy, we're really downplaying the effects on the military as a whole. We rely on the military to tell us honestly when we should fight wars, and when we can win them." 

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said West Point's disciplinary system is effective.

“The Honor process is working as expected and cadets will be held accountable for breaking the code," McCarthy said in a statement.

“The honor system at West Point is strong and working as designed," Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the academy's superintendent, said in a statement. "We made a deliberate decision to uphold our academic standards during the pandemic. We are holding cadets to those standards.”