Infrastructure and Military Systems
The use of digital technology in defense systems has changed the concept of war. The battlefield of the future will rely on weapons and defense systems that cannot be seen or heard. At the same time, digital threats to the critical infrastructure that supports those systems — and the greater economy — has vastly expanded the scope of what must be defended: the hardware, code, data, communications, power grid, and all the gateways that connect a modern weapons system.
The world is already in a digital war that poses a constant threat to data-based systems of defense. “We’re basically engaged in full-on, non-kinetic warfare today with China,” says Tom Siebel, a veteran entrepreneur who founded Siebel Systems and the recently listed artificial intelligence firm C3.ai. “We’re in the first front of this warfare in the area of AI. The Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Russians are penetrating the power grid infrastructure with viruses and malware that they can enable at any point in time to basically disable the U.S. power system. They’re doing the same thing in the U.S. financial system.”
The complexity of the modern warfare world goes far beyond the idea of event-based attacks. “There’s a lot of soft warfare that goes on, that’s below the threshold of kinetic effects. It’s not like launching a missile, but it’s still destructive. We’ve seen that in some of the skirmishes around the world, particularly around Russia,” says Irby Thompson, vice president of security product sales at Wind River.
Russian hackers working for the Kremlin are believed to be behind the 2020 breaches of U.S. government computer systems at the departments of Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security. This was a sophisticated supply chain attack that embedded malicious code into legitimate software updates.1 Russia is also believed to be behind the 2020 theft of Red Team tools, used to test for vulnerabilities, from the prominent cybersecurity firm FireEye. The cyber thieves primarily sought information related to government customers, according to the company.2
Now, as more compute and control is pushed to the edge, a new battlefront is emerging. There is more than data at stake. Think of the drones, which have already saved countless pilots from flying dangerous missions, that are run through an orchestrated system of communications, code, and human interaction. Bomb-detecting robots and autonomous underwater vessels also rely on equipment, software, and communication networks that must be protected against intruders. With every advance in the intelligent edge, the attack surface widens and deepens. Even human warriors, who are outfitted with exoskeletons, neuro-devices, and other transhuman technologies to enhance their capabilities, could become potential attack vectors.
The stakes are high in the digital arms race, points out Safi Bahcall, physicist and author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. “The cycle times and innovation have gotten so short that if we miss the next critical innovation, it could be the last one we ever miss,” he says. In 2018, “the military in the United States did the largest reorder it’s ever done in 40 years to create what’s now called the Army Futures Command.” The mission: “How do we stay ahead of our enemies with the kind of change that is coming?”
1 Ellen Nakashima and Craig Timberg, “Russian Government Hackers Are Behind a Broad Espionage Campaign That Has Compromised U.S. Agencies, Including Treasury and Commerce,” The Washington Post, December 14, 2020