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2021 Year-end Review: Geopolitical Risk and Technology

Summary

This year was all about long-term geopolitical strategy propelled by technology-driven innovation and tactics.  In 2021, geopolitical risk and technology intersected in what feels like (forgive the overused descriptor but it is apropos here) an inflection point.  Geopolitics is already operating in a future state:  technology is now the clear exponential driver of tactical maneuvers for military and geographic competitive advantage – all the while referencing nationalistic, technology-focused strategic blueprints.  The goal? The strategic geopolitical and technological domination of:

  • Newly Contested Arenas (space and climate change-driven resources).
  • Information Warfare (cyberattacks, ransomware, and influence campaigns); and
  • Gray Zone/Hybrid Warfare (kinetic maneuvers in service of larger influence campaigns and cyberwar strategy)

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Newly Contested Arenas (Space and Climate Resources)

OODA Network Member Chris Ward began the year breaking down the National Space Policy, which was announced by the White House in January.  The policy laid out six guiding principles:

  • Space is of “shared interest” to all Nations, who must operate openly, transparently, and predictably.
  • A robust domestic commercial space sector is critical to our national interests.
  • The United States will partner with other nations that share our democratic values to advance space exploration.
  • Space is NOT subject to sovereignty, and the United States will play a large role in enforcing that.
  • The United States will continue to use space for national security activities, which include self-defense.
  • All nations have the right to “pass-through and conduct operations in space without interference”.

It is unclear whether the rest of the world is on board with these guiding principles, but the fledging American commercial space industry certainly is:  In January, Blue Origin launched and landed its first space tourism rocket of the year, with human flights in sight.  Between May and September of this year, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX, respectively, achieved inaugural commercial human space flights.  In December, the Russian Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft began a 12-day space tourism mission to the International Space Station.

In July, commercial space activity also included the SpaceX  launch of 88 satellites in a rideshare mission.  A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried 88 satellites into orbit, marking the company’s second dedicated rideshare mission. The Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The satellites were from a range of government and commercial customers.  In November, we highlighted the work of Leo Labs – The Mapping Platform for Space – in the context of the recent Russian anti-satellite [ASAT] test which broke up their Cosmos 1408 satellite, resulting in “an in orbit, debris-generating event that now has the International Space Station at risk.  DARPA is also exploring biomanufacturing in cislunar space.  CalTech and NASA are approaching significant benchmarks in Space-based solar power efforts.

Space has many strategic vectors: economic, military, cyber, and information warfare. It will play a vital role in the future of U.S. collaboration with its allies. Space is also on the list of domains that are part of The Chinese Dream for supremacy in areas like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. As China sees it, the U.S. could stand in the way of achieving its strategic aims in space. Space is already seen by some as such a clear zero-sum game militarily with the Chinese.  in December, Rand researchers called for the application of the deterrence model developed during the Cold War to U.S. national security and space-based capabilities, tailoring deterrence for China in space.  According to the Rand authors, classic deterrence theory (i.e., nuclear proliferation and deterrence) should be applied to these space-based challenges.

Climate change and climate-induced emergencies and crises are also creating contested arenas.  In February, OODA CTO Bob Gourley reported on the Blueprint for a Blue Ocean:

“In January 2021, the Department of Navy released their Strategic Blueprint for a Blue Arctic.   The document outlines their plan to prepare for an increasingly available and navigable Arctic Region.  Signed by the Chief of Naval Operations, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, it looks forward twenty years and envisions the requirements to protect American interests in the Arctic.

The Arctic Region has one of the world’s smallest oceans, but because of where it is situated, it has the potential for connecting nearly 75% of the world’s population.  When you consider that 90% of all trade travels across the world’s oceans, this can be either a tremendous opportunity or an emerging vulnerability.  Additionally, the Arctic is home to 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves, 13% of the global conventional oil reserves, and one trillion dollars’ worth of rare earth minerals. And tons of FISH! There is a lot at stake here.

Russia is WAY ahead, with decades of experience in this environment.  They are investing heavily in their northern flank through modernization and infrastructure improvements.  China considers the Arctic a critical link in its One Belt One Road initiative and is building polar-capable cargo vessels, liquefied natural gas tankers, and nuclear-powered icebreakers. Both China and Russia have increased their military activity in the region and have made numerous attempts to alter the existing Arctic governance.”

Gray Zone/Hybrid Warfare

Activities this year in the South China Sea and the NATO/Russia conflict in Europe are causing concern for conflict breaking out in both regions. While Europe and Russia may appear to be on the brink of conventional warfare, we are really in a gray zone of Putin’s design.  We tracked the events in Europe in 2021 as hybrid warfare, aka Gray-zone tactics and conflict.  Frank Hoffman, a professor at the National Defense University, defines hybrid warfare as “transcending traditional notions of one military confronting another by incorporating conventional and unconventional forces, information warfare such as propaganda, as well as economic measures to undermine an enemy.”[v] Gray-zone tactics are best exemplified by the recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea – and Russia in Ukraine.

Ukraine in particular reveals itself as a model for gray zone/hybrid warfare activity.  There is an argument that in as much as totalitarian states have started to formally collaborate to achieve autocratic network effects globally (as Anne Appelbaum argues in her recent article in The Atlantic “Autocracy Is Winning“), Ukraine is a Russian beta-test, a “minimum viable product” extension of their Gray-zone tactics in the American Election of  2016 and the annexation of Crimea, all of which ports over to ongoing Chinese activities vis a vis the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  Hungary too will apply some of the learnings.  Valery Gerasimov provided the template. No one ever said that Gerasimov Doctrine would not become a Russian export.  It is  – and is central to what Prof. Hoffman defines as Hybrid Warfare, of which cyber war is an integral part.  In 2021, Gray Zones proved a proxy for a larger information warfare threat vector, as Bob Gourley laid out in his recent  C-Suite Guide To Improving Your Cybersecurity Posture Before Russia Invades Ukraine.

Information Warfare

In 2021, information felt like a ‘hot war’ or an implicit ‘state of war’ between nation-states and non-state actors on a global scale.  Following is a chronological list of cyber incidents, ransomware, and influence campaign activities (along with regional news events and technology-driven geopolitical developments) from 2021.

Together, these information threat vectors, technology strategies, real-world international conflicts, and internal political struggles gave 2021 the feel of a prologue to a broader, strategic geopolitical techno-restructuring of power, society, and individual rights.  John Robb, in his OODAcast conversation with Matt Devost, calls it “The Long Night” – and argues there is still time to avoid the worst-case scenarios.

And we have not even priced in “Vaccine Diplomacy” and the end of the Covid-19 pandemic into this equation.

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December

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.