In the latest expression of the importance of cybersecurity in U.S. policy, reflecting the level of online threats, President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. could find itself in a shooting war with a major power as a result of a large-scale cyberattack.
He made the comment in a speech at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, after pointing out how cyber threats, including ransomware attacks, are increasingly able to cause damage and disruption to the real world.
"I can’t guarantee this, and you’re as informed as I am, but I think it’s more likely we’re going to end up — well, if we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence. And it’s increasing exponentially — the capabilities," Biden said.
Cybersecurity has become a major issue for the Biden administration, especially after the U.S. was targeted in series of recent high-profile cyberattacks, such as those against SolarWinds, Microsoft Exchange and Colonial Pipeline.
"The world is changing so rapidly — technologically and in terms of alliances and human intercourse — that war is going to change across the board in the next 10 years than in the last 50 years. That’s not hyperbole; that’s a fact," he said. "And so, threats that are more geographically dispersed than they were 20 years ago are going to continue to require our vigilance."
Biden specifically mentioned two countries, China and Russia, calling them "possibly mortal competitors down the road". He said that although the U.S. has to work in cooperation with them on issues of mutual interest, it also needs "to keep a watchful eye on what the ultimate objective of the other team is."
Biden noted his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he said is "sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else," adding that Putin "knows he’s in real trouble, which makes him even more dangerous, in my view."
He also criticized Moscow over meddling in U.S. elections, saying "look what Russia is doing already about the 2022 elections and misinformation. It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty."
As for China, Biden said his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping "is deadly earnest about becoming the most powerful military force in the world, as well as the largest — the most prominent economy in the world by the mid-40s — the 2040s." Biden said he had spent more time with Xi as a world leader than anyone else has, including 25 hours alone with the Chinese leader when Biden was vice president, and 17,000 miles of travel with him.
"As we compete for the future of the 21st century with China and other nations, we have to stay on top of the cutting-edge developments of science and technology. And it’s especially important that we work closely with our partners and allies to maintain our technological edge; shore up supply chains; ensure that the rules that govern technologies support democracies, not autocracies," Biden said.
Both Russia and China have rejected U.S. accusations that they are involved in cyberattacks.