June 1, 2012  

Secret weapons & cyberwar

History shows the promise and limits of hidden capabilities

By Ravi Hichkad and Christopher Bowie

For most people, the phrase “secret weapon” usually brings to mind some state-of-the-art gadget that wowed them in the last James Bond movie. In fact, the United States and other nations have expended considerable resources on much bigger secret weapons — systems and capabilities kept hidden not only from the general public but most of the military and intelligence services as well. Examples include the British development of radar and German introduction of ballistic missiles in World War II, as well as more modern innovations such as America’s F-117 Nighthawk. There are many reasons such weapons might be kept under wraps, but one goal is simple efficacy. By preventing the development of countermeasures, secrecy maximizes a weapon’s influence when it enters a fight.

For just that reason, cyber weapons are likely to remain highly classified. Like many secret arms, they may devastate their targets on first use, but their potency can quickly decline once defenses are developed. As we’ve seen in the commercial world, viruses may run rampant when first introduced on networks, but can be isolated, blocked and negated. If hackers exploit a hole in a network’s security system, defenders can block the access point to reduce vulnerability.

This and other similarities suggest that the secret weapons of the past might tell us something about the future of cyberwar. When used, did they change the war-fighting balance and provide an edge? Or, were they useful primarily at the margins? How lasting was their effect?


Of the many secret weapons invented or used throughout history, we picked about two dozen from various eras and civilizations. We then developed a system — an admittedly subjective one — to weigh each weapon’s impact on military operations. It incorporates several factors:

• Operational effectiveness, ranging from limited success to significant effect.

• Degree of impact; a measure of the level of war affected, from tactical to strategic.

• Longevity of the weapon once employed, i.e., whether it had short- or long-term implications.

• Fragility of the weapon’s use, i.e., how easily it could be countered by the enemy once unveiled.

Our assessment indicates that secret weapons have tended to occupy a niche position. On the whole, these weapons made important contributions but few proved to have a decisive role in the outcome of major operations.

The Type 93 Long Lance torpedo provides a typical example. The Imperial Japanese Navy secretly developed a large weapon, 24 inches in diameter, which offered a maximum range of more than 20 nautical miles, far more than the U.S. 21-inch torpedo’s range of 7.5 nautical miles. Strategically, the Japanese planned for their destroyers and cruisers to use this powerful weapon to attrit American naval forces. In early surface battles, the Long Lance proved very effective; the Allies believed that either submarines had fired the weapons or that their ships had struck mines. Yet the weapon wasn’t sufficient to change the course of the Pacific War.

At the other end of the spectrum are those secret weapons that have changed the world. The most significant example is the atomic bomb, a war-winning weapon against which there was no effective defense. It shifted the global balance of power to the United States, prompted an arms race with the Soviet Union and led to the emergence of new deterrent strategies.


One problem common to secret weapons is integration. Concealing a weapon or its full capabilities may hinder the development of countermeasures, but can also reduce its effectiveness as part of a larger force. Planners permitted into the secret must walk a fine line. While some number of people might be told about the new capability, how many is too many? Perhaps some public hints about capabilities ought to be disclosed to support deterrence? Such decisions determine whether integration of the new capability enables or limits the weapon’s effectiveness and leads to operational success or failure.

A number of case studies offer useful insights. The Mitrailleuse, an early machine gun, is a telling example of how an otherwise capable weapon can be reduced to operational ineffectiveness. The French developed the innovative rapid-fire volley gun in secrecy before the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. A rifle-caliber tactical weapon, it was best suited to support infantry. Yet because the Mitrailleuse was mounted on a conventional artillery chassis, it was deployed with artillery units. The artillerymen, accustomed to manning a very different class of weapon, employed the Mitrailleuse well outside its effective range. Although the resulting poor battlefield performance was largely attributable to operator misuse, French forces faulted the weapon. As some historians later noted, these misgivings likely fed longstanding French resistance to using machine guns, which proved devastatingly effective in World War I.

If the Mitrailleuse had been properly integrated into the French battle plan, it may have performed quite capably — perhaps enough to give machine gun weapons a much earlier permanent mark on European land warfare. Its failure to do so is a reminder of the consequences of not effectively merging new capabilities with existing ones.


Apprehension surrounding the use of a secret weapon may take a number of forms, such as concern over whether it will work, or uncertainty over the extent of its effects. Fear of use may also develop over worries that the enemy could copy your secret weapon and use it against you. These trepidations played prominently in delaying use of the radar countermeasures known today as chaff.

Before World War II, both British and German scientists had researched and developed aluminum strips that when dispersed would reflect and confuse enemy radar signals. The British called their secret weapon Window and the German version was called Duppel. We now know that both nations — unaware of each other’s work — held off on using it for fear that the other would quickly copy the technology and use it as well. Eventually, the British began using chaff, cutting bomber losses considerably until the Germans developed alternative means of detection. In hindsight, despite the anxiety over its initial use, chaff became simply one more element in the ever-evolving dynamics of aircraft detection versus evasion.

This fear of use is hardly unique among secret weapons. In our rating system, we characterized this quality as a fragility factor, or the degree to which a secret weapon’s effectiveness wanes as an adversary adapts to or circumvents it. A high degree of fragility may lead a weapon into rapid obsolescence after its first use, or as in the case of chaff, merely advance the fight to another level playing field. Part of the calculus that drives decision-making on the use of a secret weapon rests on how much benefit is to be gained from its employment and for how long.


Code-breaking has historically provided nations with a different kind of secret weapon — and one similar to many cyber capabilities. If a nation can gain covert access to an adversary’s computer network, the information gleaned can be used in a similar fashion to the intelligence gained from cracking military and diplomatic codes. But since acting on such intelligence can reveal to an enemy that its codes or network have been compromised, the potential benefit must be weighed against the long-term risk. Three cases of Allied activity during World War II demonstrate the comparative risk and value of showing one’s hand to the enemy.

The U.S. Navy’s use of code-breaking before the Battle of Midway — part of Magic, the collective U.S. military effort to break Japanese codes — offers an impressive example of skillful exploitation. In late May 1942, Navy cryptanalysts at Station HYPO, the Navy’s cryptographic intelligence unit at Pearl Harbor, successfully broke JN-25, the Japanese Navy’s operational code. The decryption revealed Japan’s intent to conduct a major imminent operation against an objective referred to only as “AF.” The Station HYPO commander suspected the target was Midway Island but needed to develop greater certainty. As recounted by National Security Agency historian Henry F. Schorreck, U.S. forces on Midway were instructed via an undersea cable to send a trick radio message uncoded that stated their distillation equipment was damaged and fresh water supplies were running low. A short time later HYPO intercepted a JN-25 message indicating to Japanese fleet units that “AF” was short of fresh water. With the knowledge that “AF” was indeed Midway Island, U.S. naval forces were able to strategically position themselves against the approaching Japanese fleet. In this case, exploitation of decryption capabilities and deception through a seemingly innocuous message proved decisive for the U.S. victory at Midway.

Yet in other circumstances, the cost of using such intelligence can outweigh the benefits. In November 1940, Ultra intelligence from intercepted German messages confirmed that the Luftwaffe was planning to conduct an especially large and destructive air attack on the British homeland. Whether the intelligence indicated the specific city to be targeted or whether British leaders only knew that a major city would be hit remains unknown. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Winston Churchill declined to order any special defensive measures be taken, a decision that avoided arousing Germany’s suspicions. Britain absorbed the eventual attack against Coventry but also continued to protect the secrecy of Ultra and the extent of its capabilities.

And there is always the possibility that gaps in intelligence can lead one astray. In 1941, the British intercepted, in remarkable detail, Germany’s plans for an airborne invasion on Crete. But the Ultra indications sent to the Allied commander on Crete could not specify whether German forces would be principally focused on aerial assault, what the enemy’s main airfield objective was, or what kind of offensive force could be anticipated there. The commander therefore tried to hedge against a possible seaborne invasion, and when the German attack came overwhelmingly by air, Allied forces were not suitably deployed to defend Crete and lost it. In the aftermath, there was wide agreement that gaps in Ultra intelligence contributed to bad planning.


If the evidence is clear on anything, it’s that effectively integrating a secret weapon into operations is no easy task. But when the challenges are overcome, a notable success story can emerge. A standout example is the F-117 during the Gulf War. When the stealthy attack jet was made available to planners in the runup to 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, they were largely unfamiliar with its then-highly secret capabilities. Initially, they envisioned using the aircraft in a traditional attack role, in which multiple F-117s would be tasked against a single target to maximize damage. But after further thought, the planners realized that because the aircraft required only minimal, if any, support, each F-117 could operate by itself against up to two targets. Planners then spread the force against a wide range of targets across Iraq to strike nearly simultaneously with the intent of generating “strategic paralysis.” Post-war assessments of these attacks hailed their success in leading to the collapse of the Iraqi air defense system, thus reducing allied losses and opening up the whole country to air attack.

Without knowledge of the aircraft’s capabilities, combined with the time to think about employment of this revolutionary system in an integrated manner with conventional aircraft, the air campaign would have taken a different turn.


What we learned from our brief historical review is most secret weapons have offered a unique but limited capability. These weapons were useful for a narrowly defined set of circumstances, offering greater firepower (Mitrailleuse), longer range (Long Lance torpedo), higher survivability (chaff) or improved situational awareness (Ultra). The long-term prospect for secret weapons once revealed varied widely; some, like radar, sonar and the tank endured, while many others became historical footnotes.

Only one secret weapon, the atomic bomb, truly revolutionized warfare. Yet even the proliferation of nuclear weapons has not wholly displaced the conventional way of war. Rather, it continued to advance while a new deterrent strategy based on nuclear weapons evolved as well. Perhaps the lesson of this ultimate of secret weapons is that while new armaments may initially jolt the battlespace, no weapon in history has ever conferred an absolute ability to dominate — or prevent — future wars.

Given the many unknowns regarding today’s cyberwarfare capabilities, it would be difficult to speculate on how effectively cyber weapons might fare in application. More and more elements of national power are “netted” together, both domestically and internationally, suggesting enormous economic and military vulnerability to cyber operations. In some ways, cyber capabilities appear to offer the exploitative aspects of Ultra and Magic plus the potential for combat effects along the lines of the F-117’s ability to wreak havoc on enemy air defenses. Still, it seems unlikely that such weapons will ever approach the type of sheer destructive capability delivered by the atomic bomb, although some have suggested as much. Like many past secret weapons, cyber capabilities may ultimately be limited to — or even designed for — a narrowly defined set of circumstances. No less than the secret arms of other times, cyber weapons will not operate in a vacuum. While cyber and network warfare may grow in importance as a component of war, it will still be part of a larger set of elements needed to win.

Effectively integrating all operational elements is a key part of winning wars, and secret weapons have presented many challenges in that regard. In some cases, such the F-117, once planners became familiar with the capabilities of the weapon and applied it appropriately, its operational effectiveness was formidable. In other cases, such as the Mitrailleuse, integration was a failure for exactly the opposite reasons: users were unfamiliar with the weapon’s capabilities and applied it inappropriately. Even with good operational integration, secret weapons don’t necessarily guarantee an easy victory. At the Battle of Midway, Magic’s intelligence opened the door for a strategic win — but the price was high. Over 40 percent of U.S. aircraft engaged were lost, along with one of only four operational aircraft carriers in the Pacific at the time. Even “perfect” knowledge of the enemy’s plans doesn’t translate into winning cheaply or effortlessly.

Planners and users of cyber weapons would be wise to keep historical secret weapons in mind when determining how to maximize the effectiveness of their capabilities. As far as we know, cyber weapons have yet to be used in a sustained military campaign between capable adversaries. If that kind of cyber war does happen, today’s newest secret weapons will have clear potential. But like many of the past weapons we examined, it’s difficult to know specifically what that potential is. Much of it will depend upon how well integrated cyber weapons are to the fight, if adversaries can adapt quickly and effectively to their use, and whether any one side has the ability to sustain cyber advantages that are gained.

Even with all its sophistication, cyber war is likely to remain guided by that basic nature of war, one that has changed little over the course of history.

RAVI HICHKAD and CHRISTOPHER BOWIE, Ph.D., work at the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center at the company’s corporate office in Falls Church, Va. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Northrop Grumman Corp.