A supercomputer is a computer that has more sophisticated capabilities than general computers. They are usually built for specific purposes that are difficult to do by computers in general, such as conducting quantum mechanical research, examining climate change, estimating weather, conducting cryptoanalysis and conducting a series of exploration activities of natural resources. Due to its exceptional ability, super computers are often called as High-Performance Computers (HPC).
US and China are among many developed countries which build the world's fastest super computer. In 2016, China was awarded as the country with the world's fastest supercomputer, Sunway TaihuLight. Chinese supercomputers once held the record for being the fastest computer in the world for two years, before the US announced its supercomputer, named Sierra and Summit.
In midst-2018, the US announced that its national laboratory at Oak Ridge had succeeded in making a super-fast computer in the world named Sierra and Summit. The duo is equipped with basic devices built by IBM and DOE and has capabilities which exceed Sunway TaihuLight. Summit is a super-US computer that can carry 200,000 trillion calculations per second (more than twice the Sunway TaihuLight capability) and uses two IBM Power9 processors with 2.4 million processor cores.
On the other hand, positioned as the world's fastest supercomputer after Summit, Sierra equips 1.6 million processors with the same processor as Summit. According to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the tasks carried out by Sierra is to help NNSA conducting nuclear simulations, making it able without carrying it by underground simulation. The Advanced Simulation and Computing Program (Advanced Simulation and Computing Program / ASC Program) is used by US researchers and engineers to improve system operations and nuclear weaponry.
On the contrary, the US has also witnessed the development of non-traditional security issues, such as cyber attacks. The attack itself has caused many losses to the US, for example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the hack of Chinese hackers against dozens of US companies and various Managed Service Providers (MSPs) which affected the US economy. Therefore, this critical question argues that the traditional view of world security still dominates the US perspective on security.
Q1: Should the US develop a supercomputer to answer the challenges of traditional security, when cyberattack have been a more significant threat to its national security?
A1: The last nuclear attack in history was the US’ attack to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. After 1945, some events were leading to nuclear war, such as the Cuban missile crisis. However, it never eventually made to a real nuclear war. Recent years has proven that the development of nuclear energy as a weapon of mass destruction has also degraded as tension between the US and Russia lowered down and campaigns against the development of nuclear weapons became increasingly prevalent.
On the other hand, cyber threats to the US are increasing every day. Such an argument is shown indicated by the rising number of cyber attacks carried out by countries against each other. One of the most recent cases is the cyber attack carried out by Chinese hackers. According to journalists Bloomberg Businessweek, Robertson and Riley, a coordinated attack claimed to have been carried out by Chinese military forces who planted chips to download information on supply chains of 30 US companies including Apple and Amazon. The cyber attack has the potential to affect the level of business competition between Chinese and US companies by providing benefits to China.
Another case that could have been a lesson for the US to strengthen its oversight against cyber attacks further is the 2016 US Election which involved Russia, accused of supervising and predicting US citizen's political preferences. The cyberattack involving Cambridge Analytica is considered as one of the reasons behind the victory of US President Donald Trump and is considered a form of infringement in its election system. Furthermore, the US also experienced an increase in cybercrime in the form of data breaching. Since 2005, the US has had an increase of the number of data breaching for more than 1000 cases until 2018. These attacks have cost the United States billions of dollars over the past three years.
Judging from the facts, the magnitude of the losses incurred by the US from cyber attacks reflected the urgency of the US to further develop technologies with the ability to prevent or fight cyber attacks carried out against the United States, instead of strengthening its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Q2: Why does the US develop supercomputers for traditional security purposes when cyber attacks have been a more significant threat to its national security?
A2: the US government began its supercomputer project due to the reports from the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) which recommended the government to build a supercomputer to take China’s position as the country that has the world’s fastest supercomputer in 2013. Its effort to occupy the position is not only an effort to win the technological development race and strengthen the capability of US national security – it is also to maintain its position as a superpower.
The US’ tendency to maintain its position as a superpower is not something unorthodox. In the International Relations (IR) perspective, the condition in which countries are competing with each other to strengthen their military power is often known as a balance of power – a strategy to maintain regional stability. As a country that often utilises its military power to achieve its interests abroad, US efforts to strengthen its weapons capabilities is a signal for its competitors, including China, that the US is gaining its strength and getting more strategic in carrying out military attacks.
Editor: Anisa Pratita Mantovani
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