Hacking for asymmetry in military capabilities

After completing school, like all fellow countrymen my age, I was conscripted into the South African army. While coerced into military servitude my time was split between being trained in infantry combat and working on the Defence HQ computer system. This was a world of punch cards and mainframes, before the invention of the PC. In those days, the only hacking we knew was how to use a 10 cent diode to get free calls on a payphone. While the army taught me about bits and bytes, my colleagues made a conventional force ground incursion deep into Angolan territory. Once there, they discovered to their chagrin, an important asymmetry between the enemy’s Cuban-piloted MIG fighters and our own French-built Mirage jets. Without vital supremacy in the air, our ground troops were in some danger.

At high school, we learned about the Battle of Blood River, a local 1878 skirmish where 15,000+ Zulu warriors took on 470 Boers. By the end of that tragic day, the Boers had suffered only 3 light injuries while 3,000 Zulu warriors lay dead and the Ncome river ran red with blood. A terrible slaughter had resulted from vital asymmetry between the spears and cow-hide shields of the Zulus, and the guns and bullets of their adversaries.

Richard Stiennon has recently published an excellent book, “There will be Cyberwar”. In it he describes a hypothetical future scenario where China acts aggressively toward Taiwan, causing the US navy to show it’s presence in the region. In Richard’s fable, China then hacks into US navy capability to produce asymmetry by completely neutralising their fleet. Chinese cyber hacking causes a US carrier to lose all power and propulsion, fighter jets get lost and run out of fuel because their GPS systems are tampered with, and the carrier’s weapons can’t fire. Although there are added challenges in hacking systems not connected to the internet, nevertheless the scenario Richard paints is quite feasible and illustrates well how cyber hacking can completely neutralise a powerful military capability.

In a fight, it’s not always the biggest, strongest guy who wins. Goliath found that out when he faced David and his slingshot. A sophisticated battle tank is not very useful if it can’t go anywhere or shoot. Even though, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker maintains, we are living in the most peaceful time in history – a time he calls the Long Peace – we still need a capable military and I recommend that everyone with an interest in these matters, read Stiennon’s excellent book.

In a military conflict, neutralising weapons, mobility, communications, and positioning systems through cyber hacking, is like the Charge of the Light Brigade where light cavalry galloped headlong toward an artillery battery during the Crimean War. Result: no contest.

History provides many examples of a less powerful adversary defeating or at least frustrating a greater power. Better-equipped US forces could not defeat the Viet Cong in the Vietnam war. Cyber hacking makes this a very real possibility and an enormous threat to military today. Only this week David Cameron has indicated more money being put into military drones – a good portion of those funds need to go into protecting those drone systems from hacking.

Stiennon points out that military computer systems are not as tested and resilient as those in the private sector. Outside of the military our systems are tested by hackers every single day and as a result have gone through many years of iterative strengthening. Yet many of us know how easy it still is to penetrate and pwn.

We know that many of the systems in the military are still based on outdated Windows XP. We also know that for years, State actors such as China have been successfully hacking and stealing blueprints and secrets from defence contractors and other key suppliers. What are the chances that foreign powers don’t already have the capability to cause significant military asymmetry through hacking?

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