Building Resilience

U.S., allies face tests posed by technology and great power rivals


Great power adversaries of the United States — the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia — are pursuing multiple strategies to undermine the sense of security that oceans of distance once afforded defenders of North America. Both countries are developing hypersonic weapons that can reach the U.S. and travel at more than five times the speed of sound. The PRC is investing in the infrastructure of nearly 70 countries worldwide through its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program, giving it political influence and access to deep-water ports from which to project power. These adversaries are even trying to undermine U.S. security by gaining footholds in the northern approaches to the continental U.S. by investing in the Arctic. 

The security threats extend beyond conventional military calculus. An onslaught of cyber intrusions and supply chain shortages during the coronavirus pandemic tested the resilience of the U.S. and its allies. The diverse and complex challenges posed by this new era of great power competition have defense experts calling for the strengthening of national resilience to become a pillar of U.S. homeland defense strategy. “The enormous challenges presented by the [COVID-19] virus are reflective of a broader spectrum of resilience risks facing the United States,” wrote Franklin D. Kramer in an October 2020 report for the Atlantic Council. Kramer was a senior appointee in two U.S. administrations, including as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “Since the turn of the century,” he wrote, “three converging factors — the ever-increasing reliance on information and communications technology, the globalization of supply chains, and the rise of China as a competitor — have created vulnerabilities that have put the United States at increasing risk. Along with the biological and health risks that the pandemic has exposed, these vulnerabilities call for an expanded focus on resilience as a key element of U.S. strategy.”

The icy shores of Greenland are attracting the interest of the People’s Republic of China and the United States as resource-rich waters and vital shipping routes become key components of great power competition. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Kramer’s report, “Effective Resilience and National Strategy: Lessons from the Pandemic and Requirements for Key Critical Infrastructures,” identifies vulnerabilities ranging from China-centric supply chains to exploitable cyber systems. The road to a resilient society, he contends, requires a combination of diplomacy, economic cooperation between the public and private sectors and military deterrence to harden the homeland defense shell.

Cyber Soft Spots

Recent reports underscored cyber vulnerabilities. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a joint alert in May 2020 “warning organizations researching COVID-19 of likely targeting and attempted network compromise by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).” Health care, pharmaceutical and research companies working on the COVID-19 response “should all be aware they are the prime targets of this activity and take the necessary steps to protect their systems,” the warning stated. The agencies concluded: “China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19.”

Calling the PRC the greatest counterintelligence threat to the U.S., FBI Director Christopher Wray told the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in September 2020 that Chinese hackers continue to target U.S. firms working on coronavirus vaccines, treatments and testing technology. “Sometimes, without being too descriptive in an open setting, we can almost track a news report from some company or research institution that is announcing or revealing some progress … and then almost within days we will see cyber-targeting that ties back to Chinese actors focusing on those institutions,” he said.

The U.S. investment in Greenland is significant, analysts said, because it signals an intention to gain a foothold in the Arctic and take advantage of sea routes that are opening as polar ice caps melt. 

The nature of an ever-changing cyber environment creates vulnerability, Kramer wrote. Unlike a physical system that is rarely modified after production, software is subject to continual revision through updates and patches. “This makes the supply chain for code long and subject to myriad flaws, both unintentional and malicious,” his report states. 

He recommends that “cyber security resilient architectures” be developed for the key sectors of energy, finance, food, health, transportation and the defense industrial base, with federal funding provided to support the development and operation of these cyber defenses. The U.S. Congress, Kramer recommends, should enact legislation to establish a research and development strategy that would lead to the creation of resilient cyber infrastructures for critical industries.

Promoting Academic Resilience

Building resilience is a huge challenge for academia. The U.S. university system through its “wellspring of ideas, experimentation and talent played a signature role in ending World War II and buttressing the space program in the 1960s,” said an April 2020 report published by the Brookings Institution titled, “Preparing the United States for the Superpower Marathon with China.” The report by scholars Michael Brown, Eric Chewning and Pavneet Singh states that since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the national purpose that  motivated professors and students to tackle complex security challenges has faded. The PRC now graduates six to eight times as many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students than the U.S. “University programs are financially strained and must seek higher-paying foreign students — often Chinese nationals — to fill the ranks. But the U.S. immigration system does not allow these students to stay in the U.S. after graduating. So not only are U.S. taxpayers subsidizing the education of foreign talent in advanced STEM fields, we are subsequently losing the potential economic benefits of that investment,” the report states.

The brain drain is damaging U.S. resilience in a key area of intellectual pursuit. Cash-strapped universities are exploring partnerships with foreign funding sources, often Chinese, the report states, adding: “These soft power tools are not benign in their motivations and have been often documented to be vectors for propaganda.”

The Vladimir Rusanov, a liquefied natural gas tanker, docks at a terminal in eastern China’s Jiangsu province after its journey from Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Russia and the People’s Republic of China are partners in a liquefied natural gas plant in the Siberian Arctic. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The authors suggest that one way to establish resilience in STEM fields would be to make a “generational commitment” to STEM education. The U.S. government, they contend, should provide financial incentives for students to study STEM fields and offer government internships that lead to employment. Also needed are corporate tax credits for companies to hire more engineers and partial student-loan forgiveness for STEM students, the authors say.

Uneven Playing Fields

Another key test of resilience is the pressure of competing in a global economy where others don’t play by the same rules. The PRC and Russia blur the lines between “economic and national security, exerting state control over economic assets to further their national interest,” the Brookings report authors note. That leaves many U.S. companies outmatched when competing against state-subsidized firms such as those in China.

The challenges require the U.S. to look beyond a pure military analysis, whether about the inventory of aircraft carriers or the number of special operations forces in a theater, to assess the readiness of homeland defense, the authors contend. “The solution sets should instead integrate economic and financial tools such as sanctions, market access, and export controls along with forward military deterrence.”

Congress will rally behind U.S. businesses and research and development efforts, the authors contend, as will other nations if the U.S. takes the lead in building markets and supply chains that aren’t reliant upon the PRC. “Given China’s growing economy, investment in science and technology, and coercive power over its people, the winner of this superpower marathon is by no means certain,” the authors state. “The stakes, however, are paramount given China’s ideological differences and technology capability fueling an economy that is on a path to eclipse our own.” 

Arctic Chess Match

Perhaps nowhere is the challenge to U.S. resilience greater than in the Arctic, where the PRC and Russia have focused attention to control lucrative shipping routes and natural resources. The stakes in this contest involve key diplomatic, economic and military endeavors.

In April 2020, two Russian companies announced an agreement to build the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreaker, which Russia hopes will drive open shipping routes. The deal was unveiled about the time the U.S. announced increased financial investment and diplomatic efforts in Greenland to combat Chinese influence. The U.S. announcement occurred as two Chinese icebreakers returned home after a six-month Arctic deployment.

Hackers from the People’s Republic of China have attempted to steal vaccine and testing technology from U.S. companies working to defeat the coronavirus. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. investment in Greenland is significant, analysts said, because it signals an intention to gain a foothold in the Arctic and take advantage of sea routes that are opening as polar ice caps melt. Mineral-rich Greenland, the world’s largest island, is strategically located between North America and Europe. Most of the U.S. $12.1 million in aid will be in the form of U.S. advisory and consultancy services, used to “benefit the economic development of Greenland, including the mineral industry, tourism and education,” according to a statement by the Greenlandic government. The U.S. also opened a consulate in Greenland.

Chinese leaders are increasingly interested in the Arctic and declared their country a “near Arctic nation,” a designation rejected by the international community. They also have discussed plans for a “Polar Silk Road” as an extension of the OBOR infrastructure program. Proposed Chinese projects in Greenland include building a research station, establishing a satellite ground station and improving airfields. The recent Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic signals a new challenge for the U.S. and its allies and a heightened test of U.S. resilience.

Threats to U.S. security are global and originate across all sectors — from industry to health care to the military. 

A June 2017 policy paper by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggested that the PRC and Russia were already beginning to collaborate with frequency in the Arctic, mainly because Russia’s natural resources are becoming exploitable, thanks to Chinese investment. “The sanctions imposed on Russia by Western states following the annexation of Crimea have, however, significantly restricted Russia’s ability to access the capital and technology necessary to develop its far northern territories,” the paper states. “Determined to push ahead with the development of the Arctic, Russia has looked elsewhere for investment, notably to China.”

The challenge for the U.S. and its allies is to develop a resilient and consistent Arctic strategy — diplomatic, economic and military. Military leaders have argued for a greater Arctic presence. “Without presence, diplomacy and cooperation are absent or empty,” Adm. Karl L. Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said at a December 2018 forum hosted by the Wilson Center. “Without presence, our regulatory roles, our governance, and international agreements become hollow policies. In the Arctic region, presence equals influence. The truth is, if we aren’t present, if we don’t know the environment today, our competitors will.”

Resilience as a Strategy

To make a country resilient in the face of great power competition requires military deterrence in conjunction with coordinated statecraft and economic initiatives, Kramer argued in his report for the Atlantic Council. U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) are investing in systems powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide better early detection of conventional missiles and deliver a quicker and more complete picture of all warfighting domains. NORAD and USNORTHCOM also routinely provide deterrence by intercepting long-range Russian bombers and participating in air intercept and quick deployment exercises in the Arctic.

Threats to U.S. security are global and originate across all sectors — from industry to health care to the military. “Our homeland is not a sanctuary,” wrote U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of USNORTHCOM and NORAD, in a newsletter to his commands. “These words are inscribed over the entrance to our headquarters and remain a guiding principle for our commands as we continue to defend our homelands.”