GAO: DOD weapons systems easy to hack

computer hack (MARCUSZ2527/ 

The Department of Defense is playing catch up when it comes to securing weapons systems from cyberattacks, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

Auditors said that despite decades of warnings to DOD officials that automation and connectivity were creating new critical vulnerabilities, "until recently, DOD did not prioritize weapons system cybersecurity" and discounted as unrealistic test results that "routinely" identified such weaknesses.

Auditors found fundamental security lapses that enabled them to take over some systems. In one instance, a two-person team was able to get initial access to a weapon system in one hour and full access within a day.

"Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of systems and largely operate undetected, due in part to basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications," the auditors wrote.

GAO also warned that it is likely the Pentagon is only aware of "a fraction" of the total vulnerabilities affecting these systems, as some haven't even been tested for vulnerabilities, and most tests are conducted under limited timeframes. Nation-states, however, can dedicate weeks or months to cracking the same systems.

Intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command do provide some cybersecurity evaluations of weapons systems during the acquisition process, but they haven't been asked to provide advice to procurement officials, according to the report.

The security holes will only get worse as the military continues to move towards IT-centric weapons systems that connect and talk to one another, potentially giving an attacker of one system access to others. Last year, the Defense Science Board issued a report that concluded the military may have to accept "reduced connectivity and, when necessary, delayed timelines" in order to shrink the attack surface for adversaries in cyberspace.

While GAO, DSB and other organizations have been pushing the issue for years, auditors said the Pentagon focused much of its cybersecurity efforts on protecting internal networks and systems while giving short shrift to weapons systems. Some program offices apparently avoided cybersecurity assessments, believing that since they had not developed internal requirements around IT security, such assessments should not apply to them.

"Experts we interviewed as well as officials from program offices, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and some military test organizations explained that, until around 2014, there was a general lack of emphasis on cybersecurity throughout the weapon systems acquisition process," wrote auditors.

As a result, DOD is only just now developing a formal process for securing weapons systems from cyber threats. While DOD has issued or updated guidance around cybersecurity of weapons systems 15 times in the last four years, efforts to systemically address the problem are still nascent and will take place in an environment where hostile nation-states already have teams of hacking groups charged with scanning DOD networks, identifying weaknesses and exploiting them.

Jonathan Mayer, a computer science professor at Princeton and former technology advisor to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), called the report's findings "damning."

The vulnerabilities leveraged by the GAO testers "are common, easy to exploit, and trace to basic errors," said Mayer on Twitter. "I briefly worked on this in the Senate and -- no hyperbole -- it's terrifying."

Congress has taken some action -- the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act mandated a complete evaluation of weapons system vulnerabilities by 2019.

"That’s happening, the challenge in that is there’s a wide variety of ways that programs are addressing that requirement," Todd Probert, Raytheon’s vice president for mission support and modernization, told FCW at the Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., Oct. 9. Efforts range "from a simple assessment to a full-on red-team penetration test action against any number of weapons systems," he said.

Probert emphasized that protection is multilayered, and that Raytheon has been focusing on the weapons systems where vulnerabilities could yield the highest consequences.

"Once you do a vulnerability assessment, this is where it gets tricky, you get a whole list of consequences.... Now that program manager that has all of those [other] readiness issues has one more issue to resolve," Probert said. "When you get down into the programs, they're already struggling to keep their weapons systems in the fight, and this is just one more tax on it -- and they’re not necessarily getting funding to go remediate that as well. That’s I think the root of the challenge."

GAO opted not to make any recommendations. Cristina Chaplain, the agency's director of contracting and national security acquisitions, told FCW that several factors influenced the decision to not make formal recommendations, including the fact that DOD officials recently instituted a series of actions designed to address the problems and the relatively new focus by auditors on weapons systems.

"This was our first look at this area … and they had just instituted a bunch of actions to address the problem," said Chaplain. "We talked a lot about whether a recommendation was needed and just came out on the side of wait and see."

FCW defense reporter Lauren C. Williams contributed reporting to this story.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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