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Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 19, 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Amid all the conversation around Bob Woodward’s "Fear," there was a small detail that largely escaped public notice: U.S. cyberattack capabilities against adversary missile programs are weaker than publicly claimed. Woodward reports President Obama had initiated an ongoing program that “pinpointed cyberattacks on the command, control, telemetry and guidance systems before and during a North Korean missile test launch," but "their success rate was mixed.”

Why it matters: Pre-emptive U.S. cyberattacks on conventional and nuclear missiles, and their supportive command-and-control and targeting systems, are at the heart of the U.S. defense strategy against China. But if the Pentagon is still obtaining only “mixed results” from the same kind of disabling cyber operations with North Korean missiles, which are less sophisticated than China’s, U.S. defense capabilities in this area might be less effective than advertised.

The background: According to the U.S.' defense strategy for a contested territory, known as the AirSea Battle concept, the U.S. would launch a “blinding” attack on enemy defense electronic networks before targeting enemy forces themselves. Given China’s missile advantage against U.S. forces in East Asia, U.S. officials have been bullish about their ability to incapacitate missiles through this electronic warfare. In 2013 the AirSea Battle Office said it was “providing the [cyber] capabilities for the combatant commanders so the president has options” for crisis scenarios.

In 2016, U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson noted China’s reliance on the heavy use of precision-strike missiles systems in the event of conflict, and the complex architecture of sensors and communications networks required for each system to function. The U.S. plan would be to “inject a lot of friction into that system,” he said, emphasizing the lead role of cyberattacks in disarming China’s missile capabilities.

The bottom line: Woodward's revelations cast doubt over Richardson's and Pentagon officials' claims. As tensions continue to rise between Beijing and Washington, a credible U.S. defense posture against China would instead focus more on physical air, naval and ground forces in the region, as well as strengthening alliances and partnerships with China’s neighboring states.

Frank O’Donnell is an associate at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a consultant and nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center's South Asia Program, and a lecturer at Boston College.

Go deeper

Former D.C. Guard alleges Army Generals lied about Jan. 6 response

Members of the National Guard and Capitol police keep a small group of pro-Trump demonstrators away from the Capitol following the insurrection on Jan. 6. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A former D.C. National Guard official has alleged that top Army generals "lied" to Congress in their testimony on the U.S. Capitol riot, Politico first reported Monday.

The big picture: Col. Earl Matthews, who was serving on Jan. 6, alleges in a memo that the official version on the military response is "worthy of the best Stalinist or North Korea propagandist" and that the Pentagon inspector general's November report on it features "myriad inaccuracies, false or misleading statements, or examples of faulty analysis."

Toyota to build $1.3 billion U.S. battery plant in North Carolina

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Toyota announced Monday it's investing $1.3 billion to construct an electric vehicle battery "megasite" near Greensboro, North Carolina, set to open in 2025.

Why it matters: Toyota's Prius hybrid won environmental plaudits when it launched in 1997, but it has since lost ground to electric vehicle world leader Tesla, per Axios' Joann Muller. This battery plant will be the first to produce automotive batteries for Toyota in North America.

5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congress hunts for shortcut to pass defense funding, debt limit combo

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer returned to his office Monday. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The scramble in Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act is being complicated by an effort to tie it to a needed hike in the federal debt limit.

Why it matters: The House and Senate are rapidly coming up against a series of deadlines they must address before the end of the year — or risk disrupting crucial military funding and upending the economy. Congressional leaders are now hoping they can knock out both "must-pass" priorities in one, complex swoop.