Activity in cyberspace has permeated every facet of human activity, including U.S. military operations, yet the prospects for effective cyber defenses are bleak.
Warfare has become even more complicated since Richard Smoke wrote this description of escalation in 1977. The National Security Space Strategy describes space as “congested, contested, and competitive”, yet satellites underpin U.S. military and economic power. Activity in cyberspace has permeated every facet of human activity, including U.S. military operations, yet the prospects for effective cyber defenses are bleak. Many other actors depend on continued access to these domains, but not nearly as much as the United States.
For this reason, some analysts argue that China’s opening salvo in a conflict with the United States would unfold in space and cyberspace. Worst-case scenario assessments conclude that such an attack might render the United States blind, deaf, and dumb almost exclusively through nonkinetic means, although it is unclear how effective attacks in the space and cyber domains would be in an actual military conflict. How do concepts such as escalation, deterrence, and proportionality apply in such a context? What “odd protuberances” would counterspace and cyber attacks create in an escalation ladder? What are the salient thresholds for cross-domain attacks? And what exactly does cross-domain mean? This article explores these questions using the illustrative example of a hypothetical U.S.-China conflict because both countries possess diverse strategic capabilities that span air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.