Fiber forms a geopolitical triangle

May 1, 2001

Air raids on Chinese-made fiber-optic networks in Iraq reveal and disrupt a marriage of high-speed communications and military strategy, while harkening back to cold war notions of preemptive strikes and deterrence of nuclear war.


Last February, British and American warplanes bombed Iraqi radar and missile sites because they employed fiber-optic systems that vastly improved the defenders' speed of target acquisition and accuracy of counterfire against the planes. President Bush said the situation was "troubling" and "we're concerned about Chinese presence in Iraq," implying that China built the fiber networks, a charge quickly denied by the People's Republic of China. Bush did not say he was surprised. China's People's Liberation Army may be doing for Iraq what the PLA did for itself over the past 10 years-piecing together a nationwide encrypted and integrated communications network that, among other things, commands and controls high-performance computers that lock onto targets and direct counterfire at them. The military term for such a system is C4I.

The PLA's development of its own C4I was discussed by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in one of its memos that reached Congress in the summer of 1998. The memo was one of many public evidentiary documents used by some members of Congress to build a case that the Clinton Administration had a reckless policy regarding American exports to China, a policy giving the PLA all it needed to build a C4I. According to the DTRA, "China...has obtained production equipment to manufacture fiber-optic cable and associated technologies...without U.S. licenses....Since 1991, China [h]as sought...a C4I network...essential in warfare to link targeting data with strike assets. The ingredients for this system include high-capacity fiber optics, switching systems, satellite communications systems, and systems integration...[T]his development raises the question...[Is] the ultimate return for U.S. national security...worth this policy approach toward China[?]"

Apparently, Iraq needs a C4I to protect nuclear weapons development: German intelligence has concluded that Iraq's military will have nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles capable of reaching Europe by 2005, according to press reports. Europe is not the likely target of an Iraqi nuclear attack, and the likely target won't wait for an attack, so Iraq needs a C4I to blunt preemptive strikes against its nuclear weapons. But without a C4I, Iraq's nuclear program is vulnerable and without fiber there can be no C4I. The logic of the American-British air raid is abundantly clear, but why would China exacerbate the situation?

One line of speculation goes back to 1999, when China was ready to buy from Israel a "command center in the sky," modeled after the U.S. Air Force's huge and specially equipped C5As that directed air and land battles in the Gulf War. Israel yielded to pressure from the United States and reneged; therefore, Israel's good will was no longer a factor in China's strategic planning. That may explain China's presence in Iraq and other reports suggesting that China is aiding Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons. Another reason for China's involvement may be its desire to enhance its own power generally. The DTRA memo said China's C4I "will allow for power projection throughout the region [east Asia]"- military-speak for "provide the means to impose one's will or to influence to a great degree."

China's indirect aid of nuclear weapons development in Iraq and Iran, as well as its continuing development of its own nuclear weapons, repeats the historical pattern in which a secondary power tries to nullify an adversary's advantage through "sufficiency." The sufficiency doctrine posits that small forces are just as effective as large ones, and sufficiency is sometimes thought of as an alternative to an arms race.

For example, a nation armed with 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles is just as influential as one armed with 3,000 ICBMs, if the 100 ICBMs cannot be destroyed in preemptive attacks or if all their warheads cannot be destroyed before they reach the targets. Assuming both parties are rational, neither side attacks the other because no one is safe from nuclear retaliation. This nuclear deterrence was practiced in the 1950s by the United States and Soviet Union, but this kind of situation is unstable when allies and other third parties are considered.

Sufficiency invites the smaller force to believe it can paralyze the larger one with the threat of large casualties, then as a reward pick off third parties. This scenario was considered over 30 years ago in the book On Thermonuclear War, authored by Herman Kahn, then of the Hudson Institute, an American think tank that studied nuclear war scenarios. According to Kahn, strategic planners thought the threat of two million American casualties in the United States itself would be enough to dissuade it from defending its NATO allies against a Soviet attack; the theory was never tested, perhaps because the implementing party believed it too risky.

"Sufficiency" is an old doctrine with various permutations going back to the early 1900s when Germany built a navy large enough to challenge the British navy but not big enough to beat it in World War I. "Sufficiency" has never achieved its intended result and has never been shown to have stable or predictable results.

The sufficiency doctrine's tactical advantage-that few missiles and warheads are needed to offset an adversary's advantage-is also its weakest tenet: A "sufficient" force is small enough to invite the development of an antiballistic missile system, just like the one the United States is testing and China vehemently opposes.

In early 1999, when the U.S. Senate approved funds for the development of a national missile-defense system, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry said, "This is counter to the trend of the times of peace and development and contrary to relevant nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties."

One requisite for a missile-defense system is fast reaction time after an adversary's missile launch, a situation where fiber, optical computing, and optical switching are sure to be vital. These technologies will grow in importance, especially if a missile-defense system looks like a geodesic network, where command and control is distributed over several interlinked sites rather than a network relying on a single and thus more vulnerable site.

Very-high-speed communications and computing are important tools in geopolitical strategy, and an American national missile defense system may be an adequate counter to "sufficient" force levels of China and North Korea. One response from the "sufficiency party" could be building more missiles and warheads, thus creating an arms race, one more proof of the sufficiency doctrine's flaws and an expensive lesson for parties who would rather devote resources to improving their nation's standard of living.

But another response might be movement to a bargaining table, where any effort worth its salt will scale back the proliferation and development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, a better alternative than bombing the fiber out of one another.

Stephen N. Brown writes on public policy in telecommunications. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected] or telephone: (615) 399-1239.