Why the U.S. needs a cyber doctrine

November 22nd, 2013

(Editor’s note: In this guest essay, Timothy R. Sample, Vice President, Special Programs Organization, Battelle Memorial Institute, outlines why the U.S. needs to establish a clear policy on things cyber.)

How will the United States lead in this new era of cyber technologies?

U.S. foreign policy and national security must now take into account the cyber dimension. At the moment, there is a lack of clarity. We do not know what we want to achieve through cyberwarfare.

For decades, nation states formed clear alliances with other nation states. With cyberwarfare, there are no borders or boundaries, blurring the lines of what we would categorize as right vs. wrong. Electronic armies operate even without the endorsement of a country. Groups that create cyber weapons and launch attacks one day will disappear, splinter, and join other groups to support different causes.

We are leaving the era of alliances to a period of accomplices. As the frontline is being redrawn, we need to shift our thinking. The United States has focused on the development of technology that can protect our critical infrastructure. While tangible steps have been made, we are in need of more.

The answer to this problem can be found in the creation and implementation of a doctrine for the cyber era as a means to support and guide our national efforts in this new harsh reality. Shifting from a technology focus to a policy focus will be hard work – certainly, the Obama Administration has found this to be true as they’ve attempted to make the Cold War government bureaucratic machinery work in this new era — yet is critically important.

Like the Monroe Doctrine, which guided U.S. foreign policy for more than a century, a new doctrine for the cyber era would define how and when we will engage with the world in defending our interests.

International treaties and norms have guided nation states for a very long time. President Obama says they are still important, and rightly so. Yet these treaties, standards and norms are based on yesterday’s reality.

The situation in Syria and the actions of the Syrian Electronic Army provide a glimpse of how the future will unfold. They raise new questions about how we will protect our interests when international norms are not keeping pace with the new cyber frontline.

This should be an opportunity to start a debate on a doctrine for the cyber era, not just based on the activities of those who would do us harm, but based on what the US stands for and how we will protect our interests.

It’s time for the President and Congress to begin shaping a policy to guide our actions on the 21st Century playing field. Without such a doctrine, we can’t protect our most critical assets – the innovative ideas of brilliant people. Without such a doctrine we cannot lead.

About the essayist: Before joining Battelle in 2009, Tim Sample served as President of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a non-profit public policy and advocacy forum for intelligence and national security. He also worked at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems as the Vice President for Strategic Intelligence Strategies and Programs.