Military could lose its technological edge, top official warns

Military’s waning information superiority raises questions on future approach.

America's enemies are rapidly increasing in their ability to attack U.S. computer networks and counter-act  the military's technological tools.

Just how American forces should be postured in response remains up for debate, Robert Work, undersecretary of the Navy, told Defense Systems. 

The U.S. clearly had unmatched, worldwide battle network superiority in the 1990s and into the early part of this decade. That gave the nation an enormous information advantage that translated into winning wars quickly. The initial invasion of Iraq and the swift dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army is testament to that, he said.

America retained the technological upper hand as recently as the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. But now, U.S. military forces face a future in which sophisticated counter-networking capabilities are common and globally widespread, say technology experts in and outside the military. So how does the Pentagon preserve its networks?

“I’ve seen two schools of thought develop over seven years of participating in war games,” Work said. “One school is that if you’re under attack you do everything you can to keep the big network up.”

But another school of thought suggests a much different response is needed.

“You know the big network is going to devolve into a number of local combat networks and all you have to do is be able to communicate between them and keep going. I subscribe to that second school, because trying to keep the big network up under the ways that people can assault us now is going to be difficult,” he said.

Those are the questions “we have to ask ourselves, and that’s what the Tenth Fleet and U.S. Marine Corps Cyber Command will try to answer,” he added.

Work said that it is appropriate that the Navy has reconstituted the Tenth Fleet as Navy Cyber Command, considering the role it played during World War II, which was in anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic.

“That was a network-on-network fight--the German ocean surveillance and undersea combat network against our ocean surveillance and anti-submarine combat network. So having Tenth Fleet designated as the cyber command is right on with what we need to think about,” Work said.

The question of big network versus local combat network may be the hardest question to answer, but it is far from the only issue that has to be dealt with by the various military cyber commands. Another pressing need is to secure the Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network and the Secret Internet Prototcol Router Network. "It’s something that we’ve got to do right now because we do have some vulnerabilities on both,” he said.

“It is unbelievable the amount of intrusions that go on day to day across the world. Some of the intrusions are sponsored by states, some are sponsored by hackers. We really have to get our act together on this,” he warned.

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

Reader comments

Mon, Feb 22, 2010 edmond hennessy united states

Well, the headline grabbed my attention. It had the sound that the US is losing its technological superiority on every front. Understand the trade-offs, implications and realities of the warfighter network. On the flip-side, not to sound naive, however what are the baseline capabilities of the bad guys? What are the predictions for where they are taking their network centric efforts? How will we stay ahead and cope? Given the level of investment and priority level that the US Military puts on Network Initiatives - whether we are getting bang for the buck or not - where are the sustainable funds coming from that support the continued advancement of the enemies'network (technology) needs?

Tue, Feb 16, 2010 M Reston, VA

I think sometimes people are simply unable to comprehend the amount of resources the US commits to its military to maintain the technological edge. If we are that close to losing it, we would have to have been the most wasteful military spenders imaginable. Are we?

Tue, Feb 16, 2010 MCForensic Pittsburgh PA

As usual, someone seems to want us to believe that it is an either-or option (Big Network vs Local Combat Network). The only true military-success option is to maintain BOTH, simultaneously! If "Big" gets hacked and compromised, then "Local" is there to fall back upon, and vice versa. Yes... there is a cost factor, but how expensive is the alternative?

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