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A US Navy Admiral from Camillus stresses importance of cybersecurity in global conflicts

 John Okon smiles as he stands next to the WAER 88.3 sign at the WAER radio station.
Scott Willis
/
WAER.org
U.S. Navy Rear Admiral John Okon is deputy chief of naval operations and director of information warfare. He stopped by the WAER studios in late September.

A Camillus native, who’s now a high-ranking official with the U.S. Navy, says cyberspace has become part of the battlefield in conflicts such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Rear Admiral John Okon’s primary expertise lies in meteorology and oceanography. But he’s also a director of information warfare and deputy chief of naval operations. Okon has acquired a perspective that few others have about how the war between Russia and Ukraine is unfolding.

In a recent visit to Syracuse, he told WAER News that cyber warfare is as critical as weapons.

“Cyber prepares the battle space before you actually get into any kind of physical contact or kinetic effect," Okon said. "Ukraine is doing a really good job fighting Russia using some really key high-end I'll call warfare concepts. And a lot of them are in that information domain.”

Okon couldn't give specifics, but he said the importance of information warfare can’t be underestimated.

“Cyber is critical," Okon said. "It's probably the one thing if you get wrong, you will lose a war.”

Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian cities intensified this week after the bombing of a vital bridge to Crimea. The bridge was built by Russia a few years ago after Vladimir Putin annexed the region in 2014. Okon said the U.S. is ready to address potential broader threats posed by Russia.

“Russia wishes to upend the liberal world order and replace it with their own authoritarian one," Okon said. "They wish to change the dynamic of how the world operates and that they will take over how the world operates. Our Navy is forward right now making sure that does not happen, deterring aggression, deterring conflict.”

Okon said another area of concern is China, especially its intellectual property and international trade. He said the U.S. is constantly trying to protect sensitive military intel from the prying eyes of China.

Okon said China steals billions of dollars of intellectual capital and then sells it for trillions more. That’s why he believes cybersecurity is an essential part of what he does as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations.

“If you look at their aircraft, their ships, they look a lot like ours. They've stolen them from the internet," Okon said. "They've stolen them through other aspects of our defense network. And so protecting our assets means protecting our capability at sea and ashore, is really, really key.”

Okon said China, Russia, and others are always looking for ways to penetrate the U.S. information domains.

There are other concerns, as well. In recent months, China has stepped up its saber-rattling against Taiwan, which the U.S. is watching with concern.

According to Okon,China is making moves to take control of the South China Sea, which carries about 60% of global trade. He said this is of special interest to the U.S. Navy.

“They wish to use the South China Sea as an inland waterway that would change the law, the sea dynamics of how you can transit through the South China Sea and would really cut off two major choke points from international trade," Okon said.

Okon also said China is using its immense power and wealth to exert control over countries like sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.

China wishes to bully them with either coercion on the sea or through debt trade,” Okon said. “Negotiations where they go in, they buy something or they build something really cheap at a high-interest rate, the developing country can't pay it back, and then they actually get sovereignty in that country. Debt trade diplomacy is what it's called.”

China denies these so-called “debt traps,” but data from the World Bank indicate China’s loans to more vulnerable regions tripled between 2010 and 2020. Okon said the U.S. Navy stands ready to protect its allies from both China and Russia, with most of its ships deployed in the Western Pacific.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at srwillis@syr.edu.