America world’s sole cyber superpower, ten years ahead of China, says Brit think tank

UK, Australia, Russia ranked in second tier. North Korea and Iran are a step down but feisty


The United States is comfortably the world’s most powerful nation when measured on “cyber capabilities that make the greatest difference to national power,” according to British think tank The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The institute on Monday published a document titled “Cyber Capabilities and National Power: A Net Assessment” that covered 15 nations and considered the following criteria:

  • Strategy and doctrine;
  • Governance, command and control;
  • Core cyber intelligence capability;
  • Cyber empowerment and dependence;
  • Cyber security and resilience;
  • Global leadership in cyberspace affairs;
  • Offensive cyber capability.

The two-year research effort saw the institute examine 15 nations and define three tiers of capability.

America was ranked the sole Tier-One Nation, meaning it possesses “world-leading strengths in all the categories in the methodology”.

The report says America's “capability for offensive cyber operations is probably more developed than that of any other country, although its full potential remains largely undemonstrated”.

An interesting observation given the recent Colonial Pipeline ransomware incident is that “The US has moved more effectively than any other country to defend its critical national infrastructure in cyberspace”. That opinion is tempered with the observation that the United States “recognises that the task is extremely difficult and that major weaknesses remain”.

Australia, Canada, China, France, Israel, Russia, and the UK were rated Tier-Two nations, meaning they possess “world-leading strengths in some of the categories”.

A few observations on each from the institute's report:

  • Australia’s capability stems from its membership of the Five Eyes alliance, and while it has shown it has offensive capabilities it needs “to make dramatically greater investments in cyber-related tertiary education and carve out a more viable sovereign cyber capability”;
  • Canada benefits from a strong domestic tech industry and is very good at building alliances that enhance its capacities, but has unproven offensive capabilities;
  • China has weak defences and under-developed policies to protect key infrastructure but proven offensive capabilities. Rated as most likely challenger to the United States;
  • France walks a line between working with allies to enhance its capabilities and relying on its own tech that, while decent, may not be as capable but does have the benefit of creating fewer dependencies;
  • Israel has impressive policy frameworks, and not only possesses offensive capabilities but is willing to use them “in a wide range of circumstances”;
  • Russia has proven it can conduct information warfare and is trying to strengthen its tech industry and therefore its capabilities, but its underperforming economy makes it hard to realise that ambition. Trails America and China in terms of “developing the most sophisticated offensive military cyber tool”;
  • The UK derives strength from its many alliances and has conducted offensive cyber-ops since the early 2000s. But a lack of talent, inability to match the scale of investments made by China and the United States, and small industrial base mean it can manage risks but not export tech to the world.

Tier-Three nations are defined as possessing “strengths or potential strengths in some of the categories but significant weaknesses in others”.

Two nations often identified with offensive operations — North Korea and Iran — are named in Tier Three.

Iran earned its place because, while it invests in cyber to both counter internal dissent with surveillance and act against external enemies, it has a small talent pool and sanctions restrict its access to the best security tools.

North Korea was labelled opportunistic and lacking in organised cyber-security efforts, but nonetheless effective despite using basic tactics. However, its defensive stance is sub-par.

India was assumed to focus most of its attention on Pakistan, but to have great potential if it can harness industry and government efforts. Malaysia won praise as an early mover and has the alliances and will to ascend a tier. Vietnam has ambition and proven offensive capability, but policy is not well-aligned to realise its will and skill.

Indonesia also made the list on the grounds that it has built good alliances and is building capacity.

The report concludes that America's “digital-industrial superiority, including through alliance relations, is likely to endure for at least the next ten years”.

One reason for that assessment is that the US and its allies “have agreed to restrict, with differing degrees of severity, China’s access to some Western technologies” and therefore potentially impeded China’s ability to develop its own cyber capabilities.

“How robustly the US continues this strategy, and how China responds, will dictate the future balance of cyber power,” the report ends. ®

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