As the World Transitions to New Generation Warfare, Relying on Secrecy Is Less a Fix Than a Problem
Our government’s reflexive habit to over classify is undermining its ability to secure the best people and contractors, slowing critical innovation rates, lengthening acquisition timelines, and depriving our allies of the information they need to work closely with and trust the United States. Most important, over classification is depriving our military planners and diplomats of the tools they need to deter, win, and negotiate from strength against America’s adversaries.
It took the United States decades to dig itself into this current over classification rut. It got underway in earnest with World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — two nuclear attacks that convinced Washington and the World that pulverizing an adversary’s military, political, and industrial centers was the key to killing a nation, winning wars quickly, and deterring future conflicts. Area bombing raids during World War II experimented with this concept; nuclear weapons and their use against Hiroshima and Nagasaki validated it.
After America’s nuclear use against Japan, launching, defending, and deterring nuclear air attacks became our military’s top priority and a major governmental organizing principle. The United States amassed tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, thousands of long-range missile delivery systems, fleets of bombers, national air and missile defense systems, and dozens of submarine ballistic missile boats. Beyond this, emergency powers were enlarged to authorize military nuclear strikes, national civil defense programs, emergency communications systems, and protective bunkers that prioritized sheltering the nation’s leadership against the “Day After.”
To support these efforts, officials resorted to unprecedented levels of secrecy. Not just sensitive national security government documents, but the discussion of entire topics (e.g., anything to do with nuclear energy and weapons) were automatically restricted as being “born classified.” America’s justice system, meanwhile, adopted the policy of making a broad swath of information (“state secrets”) too sensitive to be admissible as evidence in legal proceedings.
The unspoken assumption behind all of this was that planning for the worst was smart since any other national security threat — e.g., the war on terrorism, regional wars, etc. — were “lesser included threats,” i.e., headaches that could easily be taken care of and subsumed by proper preparation for a general all-out nuclear war. Certainly, with September 11, 2001, Washington doubled down on the idea that the common defense required high levels of secrecy.
Today, though, this doubling down rests on shaky ground. Why? Because the world is transitioning to new forms of warfare that could enable states to use high technology to “kill” other nations (or threaten to do so) by targeting their will to fight rather than by massively pulverizing their military, industrial centers, and political capitals. This attempt to shift to disabling nations with high-tech systems without physically decimating them is not a “lesser included threat” but something new.
In lieu of threatening physically to blow up most of an adversary’s military or industrial capabilities, nations now are competing to unplug and scramble one another’s ground and space-based eyes, ears, voices, and nervous systems — complexes essential to maintaining control over any nation’s military, financial, and political activities. More important, countries are trying to accomplish this as much as possible without resorting to explosives (e.g., with rendezvous robot satellites, electronic warfare systems, biological agents, lasers, disinformation, cyber weapons, etc.). Nuclear weapons acquisition and modernization (cf. Chinese, Russian, American, British, French, Israeli, North Korean, Indian, and Pakistani efforts), of course, continue but it would be a mistake to focus only on these developments to understand the strategic trends underway.
In fact, kinetic warfare is being transformed, being pushed from inflicting wanton destruction to hitting targets with high precision. Further development of these new systems — intelligent, autonomous missiles, drones, submersibles, naval craft, etc.— promises to reduce the prospect of total, protracted, industrial-scale war (nuclear or nonnuclear). These new systems can only do this, however, if they are fed a steady diet timely, accurate, intelligence; are prepositioned well in advance of their possible use; and are part of declaratory policies and military doctrines that are convincing to both friends and foes.
In this brave new world, less secrecy, not more will be needed to deter, dissuade, and effectively bargain with hostile states and non-state actors. Washington will need more clearly articulated declaratory military deterrence and retaliatory policies; demonstrated, faster rates of military innovation and acquisition; and significantly more sensitive information and intelligence sharing with private firms, allies, and friendly nations. This does not mean eliminating secrecy so much as maintaining the right amount at the right level and no more.
Senior officials working on America’s military space requirements understand this and are striving to eliminate the yoke excessive levels of secrecy has burdened them with. America has lost its post-Cold War monopoly controlling space. China Russia, Europe, Japan, South Korea, India, and Israel all now have moon or mars missions of their own. Commercial space firms now supply needed communications and multi-spectral imagery services to the military and commercial and civil lasers, rendezvous satellites, and space debris removal satellites can all be flipped quickly to perform anti-satellite missions. Those most eager to maintain America’s advantage in space understand that excessive levels of secrecy must be relaxed if America’s military, space industry, and allies are to work together effectively to stay ahead.
Excessive levels of secrecy must also be relaxed if America and its allies are to get ahead in advanced computational science, secure communications technologies, cyber and crypto techniques, and biological and health sciences — all key ingredients to winning new generation conflicts. Here the aim must be to increase the rate of innovation and shorten acquisition times. This can best be achieved by expanding the number of qualified innovators and the ways they might safely collaborate, which in turn, requires less, not more secrecy while making the means to communicate protected information more readily available. To assure this, Congress must step up its game overseeing America’s classification and clearance system.
Might relaxing current clearance and classification levels risks more “leaks?” Perhaps, but using excessive secrecy to “protect” existing technology that is about to become obsolete will do far less to confound our adversaries than increasing our rates of innovation and acquisition., Increasing these rates, increases the number of projects and research efforts our adversaries must track and assess. Given the ratio of success to failure is often as one is to ten, easing classification should greatly complicate our adversaries’ ability to “crack” what our next strategic technical advance might be and prompt them to spend on time-consuming, expensive defensive measures.
Viewed in this context, America’s penchant for relying on excessive secrecy to maintain our national security is no longer a fix; it’s a problem. Hence, the need to clarify the national security dangers of excessive secrecy and to identify ways to reform our classification and clearance systems.
Given these national security challenges excessive secrecy enlarges, NPEC created a working group that has tapped the insights of early, mid-career, and senior officers and staff from the military, Pentagon, Intelligence Community, Department of State, Government Accountability Office, National Archives and Records Administration, and the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. The working group also has secured the assistance of senior retired officials, outside government advisers, academics and legal scholars, and other policy experts. The group has benefited from the participation of the staff and members of the Congressionally created federal Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB).
So far, the group has examined how over classification has:
- throttled fulsome analysis of America’s most important past military-strategic decisions;
- dramatically slowed rates of military innovation by increasing the barriers to competition on important national security projects;
- discouraged allied and domestic dual-use and defense firms from offering their best ideas and technologies for fear of losing the right to export them to others;
- seriously undermined the achievement of our nation’s military space missions;
- subverted the intent of our nuclear nonproliferation export control laws;
- prevented Congress from conducting effective oversight and management of the Executive Branch’s most important national security programs; and
- made it nearly impossible to secure needed cooperation from the private sector to make our internet systems more secure against cyber attacks.
The group also has investigated what is working and what can be done to reform our classification and clearance systems. The group has examined how Australia’s efforts to reduce classification have worked and made their defense and diplomatic efforts far more efficient. The group also has examined how the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has implemented a new, less restrictive, classification guides, systems of routine classification revision, and speedy appeal processes that could serve as a model for other intelligence and national security programs that demand high rates of innovation and information sharing. Finally, the group is examining how Congress handles classified information and clearances and what might help to improve its oversight of classified matters and the Executive Branch’s classification and clearance systems.
The working group is currently working on a final report with four specific recommendations — two for Congress and two for the Executive Branch — and it hopes to brief privately with the Administration and with the Hill this coming Winter and Spring.