By ZACHARY FRYER-BIGGS
WASHINGTON — Cyberwarfare is the most serious threat facing the United States, according to almost half of US national security leaders who responded to the inaugural Defense News Leadership Poll, underwritten by United Technologies.
But while the leaders in national security policy, the military, congressional staffs and the defense industry are united in the seriousness of the cyber threat, agreement on the next greatest threat breaks down clearly along party lines. Terrorism is viewed as the next greatest threat by leaders who identified themselves as Republicans, while climate change was cited by those identifying as Democrats.
The poll sheds new insight into what is often seen as a monolithic and even nonpartisan national security community. More than 350 senior defense leaders responded to the poll in late November, answering two dozen questions across the gamut of defense issues.
Respondents were far more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats (38.5 percent vs. 13.5 percent). That’s radically different than the public at large, which typically tilts toward Democrats — 30 percent Democrat to 24 percent Republican in a December Gallup poll.That difference is even more dramatic among respondents who said they worked for the military, where Republicans outnumbered Democrats by seven to one (56.9 percent vs. 7.7 percent). Independents also made up a large percentage of respondents (34.2 percent).
On the cyber threat, 45.1 percent of respondents said Cyberwarfare is the greatest threat to the United States, with 42.4 percent of Democrats joining 36.3 percent of Republicans and a whopping 55 percent of independents agreeing.
That’s a sign that the stark warnings from military and civilian defense leaders have made their mark. It was little more than a year ago when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of the shock that might come from a concerted cyberattack.
“The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber Pearl Harbor, an attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life,” Panetta said in a widely publicized policy speech. “In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”
The threat environment beyond cyber is where party differences show up:
- Republicans saw terrorism as an equal threat to cyberwarfare, with an identical 36.3 percent citing terrorism as the greatest threat facing the country.
- Democrats were less than half as likely pick terrorism (18.2 percent) as the leading threat. Instead, climate change took the No. 2 slot among Democrats, 21.2 percent. By contrast, not a single Republican respondent cited climate change as a threat.
- Independents were in line with Republicans, listing terrorism as second (20 percent) behind cyberwarfare. China (13 percent) and climate change (7 percent) followed.
Respondents identifying with different US political parties were much more closely aligned when asked about the threats facing US allies in Asia and the Middle East. Iran was named as the top threat in the Middle East (54 percent) followed by terrorism (43.3 percent). In Asia, China got a relative majority (47.6 percent) followed by North Korea (28.8 percent).
But party lines appeared again when the question switched to threats facing US allies in Europe. A majority of Republicans (54.8 percent) picked terrorism as the top threat, followed by cyberwarfare (30.7 percent) and Iran (10.5 percent). Democrats conveyed more concern about cyber (40.6 percent) than any other threat. And just as was true when asked about the United States, the second most popular pick for Democrats was climate change (28.1 percent) followed by terrorism (21.9 percent).
Independents agreed with Democrats on the top threat to European allies, with 41.8 percent selecting cyber. But climate change was in a distant tie for third most popular (9.2 percent) with independents instead making terrorism (35.7 percent) the second most popular choice.
Even in a community that runs on defense dollars, traditional party perspectives on the need for defense spending were also apparent. While a 37.2 percent plurality of respondents said Defense Department spending is too low — including 50.8 percent of Republicans — only 22.9 percent of Democrats think defense spending is too low. Indeed, nearly half of responding Democrats said it is too high (48.6 percent).
Those numbers mesh with traditional party caricatures of hawkish Republicans and social program-boosting Democrats. That standard, however, has proved unreliable in recent years, as many younger Republicans labeled as tea party supporters have focused more on cutting spending than propping up defense, partially leading to automatic budget cuts under sequestration.
That tea party constituency also has been vocal about privacy concerns following the disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of a variety of classified surveillance programs. The broader public has expressed increasing amounts of outrage, while most in the defense sphere have avoided speaking out against the collection of intelligence and many have been quietly supportive.
Still, when asked how the Snowden disclosures have affected the debate on surveillance, almost half — 47.2 percent — of all respondents said the disclosures have helped the debate.
Divided along party lines, the numbers become quite different. A majority of Democrats and independents, 68.8 percent and 58.2 percent respectively, said the disclosures helped debate. Yet 57.7 percent of Republicans said the disclosures hurt the debate, showing again few signs of tea party ideology.
“In a community where cyber is seen as the biggest threat, what Snowden did was helping debate? That’s fascinating,” said Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Stimson Center who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration. “It reinforces my sense that I don’t think [Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.] or [Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.] are getting traction on this issue. Right now, it’s not winning, because whatever one thinks about Edward Snowden, his media strategy is incredibly brilliant. The drip-drip-drip is working.”
Those polled also support the one initial proposal for intelligence reform that has been completely rejected by the Obama administration: the separation of leadership responsibilities for the NSA and US Cyber Command. More than half — 56.7 percent of respondents — think leadership should be split, a number that was consistent across party lines.
In questions about how the state of US strength and the strength of potential American adversaries compares to five years ago, before the Obama presidency, party lines were also clear.
By roughly two-to-one, Democrats think the US is stronger than it was five years ago (21.2 percent vs 12.1 percent). Only 4.8 percent of Republicans, on the other hand, think the US is stronger, while the vast majority, 72.6 percent, said the US is weaker.
And Republicans, by and large, think potential US adversaries are stronger, with 58.5 percent saying Russia is stronger than it was five years ago, and 45.2 saying Iran is stronger. In each case, Democrats were roughly half as likely to deem the rival stronger.
United in Pessimism
Partisan politics are set aside and respondents were united by a pessimistic view of future defense spending, a dislike of automatic budget cuts called sequestration and frustration with a ponderous defense acquisition system.
Asked when they expect the defense budget to begin rising again, 32.8 percent said it would be 2019 or later than any of the intervening five years. Less than a quarter of respondents thought it would increase by 2016.
An overwhelming 79.4 percent of respondents disagreed with the notion that sequestration cuts were necessary to reduce defense spending; 65.3 said defense spending would have been cut anyway without the sequester.
But nowhere did respondents more heartily and universally agree than on their collective criticism of the US defense acquisition system. Some 83.6 percent of respondents disagree with the statement, “US acquisition policy is effective in bringing best value to the US taxpayer,” and nearly as many — 73.4 percent — disagreethat acquisition reforms have yielded “significant savings.”
Another 70.9 percent of respondents said acquisition regulations “stifle innovation.”
A.J. Clark, president of Thermopylae Sciences, which leverages commercial software for defense applications,said the numbers tell a story of a system so complex that innovators are scared off, partly because they have a hard time finding out about opportunities.
“I have 15 people watching Fed Biz Opps and other sites, and there are many things that they still don’t see,” said Clark, referring to the Federal Business Opportunities website.
Part of the problem is that so many layers of acquisition rules have been piled on over the years that sorting them out is an enormous burden on companies, said Christian Marrone, the Aerospace Industries Association’s vice president for national security and acquisition policy.
“The rules and regulations in general have become over burdensome,” he said. “None of these findings should surprise anyone, what may surprise me is that the numbers aren’t even higher given what we’ve seen.”
Marrone said the Defense Department is aware of the problem, and taking action to correct issues.
“I think the chief critic of the system is the owner of the system himself, Frank Kendall [undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics],” he said. “I think he’s been clear that the system needs to take more risks. It needs to be more innovative, more forward thinking, more outside of the box.”
Some of theObama administration’s more important policy efforts are facing skepticism or dissent, the poll also showed.
Asked if, given the budget constraints and ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, the planned rebalance of military assets to Asia would be affordable, 62 percent of respondents said no.
Despite some headwinds, there are ways of making that shift without spending a lot of money, Adams said.
“I think that we will be able to afford it because we’ll make tradeoffs,” he said. “Most of what we’re doing is shifting spending, not adding spending.”
But whether the military services will be willing to accept changes to their role, such as a likely reduction in the emphasis on Army ground capabilities, is unclear.
“That’s the $64 billion question,” Adams said.
Obama’s efforts to strike a deal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program also face challenges in the defense community. While Secretary of State John Kerry has been careful to leave the door open to allowing Iran to enrich non-weapons-grade uranium, emphasizing to Congress that in a negotiation there has to be some compromise, most respondents did not agree. In the poll, 73 percent said Iran should not be allowed to have any capability to enrich uranium at all.
There is one thing the defense community is predicting to happen in 2014, a trend that defense executives have wanted for a long time: industry consolidation. More than half — 53.2 percent — of respondents expect significant consolidation beginning this year.