Defense

Report: Cyber enhances military power -- and vulnerabilities

concept cybersecurity art

As the Defense Department continues to increase its digital capabilities, adding greater precision and lethality, it is also increasing its vulnerabilities, according to a new report.

In "Digitally-Enabled Warfare: The Capability-Vulnerability Paradox," the Center for a New American Security likens DOD to a car that relies so heavily on computer and electronic technology that a system failure or hack could render the vehicle inoperable.

"Digital technologies are integrated into every domain, across weapon systems, and across all levels of warfare," the report states. "Because of their ubiquitous nature and infrastructural characteristics, the capabilities and the vulnerabilities they imbue are exponential as opposed to strictly additive."

As a result, CNAS said the U.S. needs to strike a balance between developing the military might to achieve its objectives and remaining "able to mitigate network vulnerabilities from an adversary's first-move attack."

"The cyber capability/vulnerability paradox is also different than other types of weapons development because the cause of this paradox is not a particular platform or weapon capability, but the way in which cyber creates an infrastructure of capabilities and vulnerabilities that connects to a family of weapons and platforms," the report states.

Two systems that add unmatched capabilities but are effectively useless if hacked or if their electronic systems are compromised are the Distributed Common Ground System, which gathers intelligence from a variety of sources, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has been beset by technical and software problems.

"It is the systematic acquisition and development of similar digitally dependent technologies that moves the United States toward digital dependency and makes the U.S. military highly capable and highly vulnerable," the report states.

And the problem goes beyond vulnerability to electronic failures or cyberattacks. The report argues that as a nation like the U.S. increases its digital capabilities, it motivates weaker states to consider a first strike "because the less capable state knows it cannot survive unless it is able to cripple the digitally enabled state's advantage."

At the same time, CNAS said a weaker state that is developing its digital capabilities has an incentive to strike first because it cannot operate without its new capabilities and needs to protect them. That, in turn, gives the stronger state an incentive to move first to destroy its adversary's first-strike capabilities.

In theory, the U.S. military's digital dominance will serve as a deterrent. "However, if the United States continues to build weapons and campaigns that move toward digital dependency, then it may find itself in a tenuous situation where it must either strike first or be prepared to function without much of its digital capability," the report states.

It recommends that DOD incorporate manual backstops to increase its resiliency.

"But resiliency also will likely require increased manned training and tactical proficiency for back-up manual procedures and off-net (or off-datalink) operations," the report states. "And, perhaps most difficult, this requires building campaigns that are not dependent on digital capability."

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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