Jun 7, 2024 - World

Oceans can no longer protect America

Illustration of a shield made out of water cracking and spilling water

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The growth of space and cyber technologies worldwide is raising the likelihood that war — or at least its ripple effects — will crash onto America's doorstep.

Why it matters: Centuries of national security strategy, relying on protection provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, are being rattled by these weapons that conquer vast distances.

America has long had the edge in space and cyberspace, but China and other powers are closing the gap. A global surveillance showdown is underway.

  • Hackers tied to the People's Liberation Army abscond with countless files detailing stateside arsenals. That theft propels its modernization.
  • Other saboteurs stalk critical infrastructure, including in Guam, a key U.S. foothold. A digital onslaught there would sap military responses in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Russian hacks plague Ukraine, earning it a "testing ground" moniker. U.S. lawmakers expressed concern about spillover in the months following the 2022 invasion.
  • North Korean cyberattacks rake in money and other assets, funding the regime's weapons programs.

A record-setting 2,877 spacecraft were launched in 2023. While most were attributed to the U.S. and its booming commercial sector, Chinese and European numbers were on the rise.

  • Both China and Russia have made strides in developing space weapons that could knock out satellites essential to navigation, overhead imaging and long-distance communications. Destructive testing of anti-satellite weapons has produced dangerous debris, as well.
  • A senior Pentagon official earlier this year warned of Moscow's efforts to put a nuclear device into space.
  • "I would say China is well ahead of us there. They've got the full suite of counter-space capabilities, as does Russia," said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "The United States has a lot at stake in space."

By the numbers: The Department of Defense's spending illuminates its thinking.

  • The department's fiscal year 2025 budget blueprint included $14.5 billion for cyber, about $1 billion more than the Biden administration's previous ask.
  • The figure featured $977 million for zero trust, a cybersecurity paradigm that assumes there already exists a breach, meaning users and their peripherals must be constantly validated.
  • The Space Force's request totaled $29.4 billion — a dip, but still double the FY21 plan.
  • A little less than $19 billion was earmarked for research and development, including for missile warning and tracking and nuclear war coordination.

What they're saying: "War has used the space domain and the cyber domain for decades," said Benjamin Jensen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's a question of the way they're used runs contrary to our vision of what warfare is as a society."

The bottom line: Competition in these environments is heating up, and the American advantage is waning.

Go deeper