We are now in the midst of what could be called the Cool War. This successor to the Cold War shares the trait that it does not involve hot conflict on the battlefield, but is different in the nature and expectations surrounding the sub-rosa thrusts and parries by which it is conducted.
This new war is "cool" rather than "cold" for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of "cool," in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War -- which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare.
The Cool War is largely different not only because of the participants or the nature of the conflict, but also because it can be conducted indefinitely -- permanently, even -- without triggering a shooting war. At least that is the theory.
The latest sign that this war is on-going is Tuesday's New York Times story focusing on the revelations produced by a U.S. cyber-security firm called Mandiant regarding China's People Liberation Army Unit 61398, a Shanghai-based operation that has allegedly been conducting "an overwhelming percentage" of recent attacks on U.S. companies and government agencies, according to the Times account.
What is striking about the story is that it has such a "dog bites man" feel to it. Everyone who is paying attention knows the Chinese are doing this -- as are other countries from Russia to Iran and beyond -- and no one has any sense that such attacks will cause the kind of rupture to the U.S.-China relationship that might have been expected in the era of spy scandals past. This feeling is pervasive, damaging, and, save for periodic demarches and statements of outrage from high officials, likely only to produce more business for companies like Mandiant and more resources for cyber-units in the U.S. Department of Defense to counter the nerd armies of our adversaries and rivals.