Jason Atwell has served in the U.S. Army for over 17 years and has worked in intelligence and cyber for most of that time. He has been a Federal employee, a consultant, and a contractor at a dozen agencies and spent time overseas in several of those roles. He is currently a senior intelligence expert for FireEye, Inc. and works with government clients at all levels on cyber security strategy and planning. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: As combat systems within DoD become more connected via networks, this increases their vulnerability to adversary action.
Date Originally Written: November 1, 2020.
Date Originally Published: January 11, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a reservist in the U.S. Army and a cyber security and intelligence strategist for FireEye, Inc. in his day job. This article is intended to draw attention to the need for building resiliency into future combat systems by assessing vulnerabilities in networks, hardware, and software as it is better to discover a software vulnerability such as a zero day exploit in a platform like the F-35 during peacetime instead of crisis.
Background: The United States is rushing to field a significant number of networked autonomous and semi-autonomous systems while neglecting to secure those systems against cyber threats. This neglect is akin to the problem the developed world is having with industrial control systems and internet-of-things devices. These systems are unique, they are everywhere, they are connected to the internet, but they are not secured like traditional desktop computers. These systems won’t provide cognitive edge or overmatch if they fail when it matters most due to poorly secured networks, compromised hardware, and untested or vulnerable software.
Significance: Networked devices contain massive potential to increase the resiliency, effectiveness, and efficiency in the application of combat power. Whether kinetic weapons systems, non-lethal information operations, or well-organized logistics and command and control, the advantages gained by applying high-speed networking and related developments in artificial intelligence and process automation will almost certainly be decisive in future armed conflict. However, reliance on these technologies to gain a competitive or cognitive edge also opens the user up to being incapacitated by the loss or degradation of the very thing they rely on for that edge. As future combat systems become more dependent on networked autonomous and semi-autonomous platforms, success will only be realized via accompanying cybersecurity development and implementation. This formula for success is equally true for ground, sea, air, and space platforms and will take into account considerations for hardware, software, connectivity, and supply chain. The effective application of cyber threat intelligence to securing and enabling networked weapons systems and other defense technology will be just as important to winning in the new multi-domain battlefield as the effective application of other forms of intelligence has been in all previous conflicts.
Option #1: The Department of Defense (DoD) requires cybersecurity efforts as part of procurement. The DoD has been at work on applying their “Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification” to vendors up and down the supply chain. A model like this can assure a basic level of protection to hardware and software development and will make sure that controls and countermeasures are at the forefront of defense industrial base thinking.
Risk: Option #1 has the potential to breed complacency by shifting the cybersecurity aspect too far to the early stages of the procurement process, ignoring the need for continued cyber vigilance further into the development and fielding lifecycle. This option also places all the emphasis on vendor infrastructure through certification and doesn’t address operational and strategic concerns around the resiliency of systems in the field. A compliance-only approach does not adapt to changing adversary tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Gain: Option #1 forces vendors to take the security of their products seriously lest they lose their ability to do business with the DoD. As the model grows and matures it can be used to also elevate the collective security of the defense industrial base.
Option #2: DoD takes a more proactive approach to testing systems before and during fielding. Training scenarios such as those used at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center (NTC) could be modified to include significant cyber components, or a new Cyber-NTC could be created to test the ability of maneuver units to use networked systems in a hostile cyber environment. Commanders could be provided a risk profile for their unit to enable them to understand critical vulnerabilities and systems in their formations and be able to think through risk-based mitigations.
Risk: This option could cause significant delay in operationalizing some systems if they are found to be lacking. It could also give U.S. adversaries insight into the weaknesses of some U.S. systems. Finally, if U.S. systems are not working well, especially early on in their maturity, this option could create significant trust and confidence issues in networked systems.
Gain: Red teams from friendly cyber components could use this option to hone their own skills, and maneuver units will get better at dealing with adversity in their networked systems in difficult and challenging environments. This option also allows the U.S. to begin developing methods for degrading similar adversary capabilities, and on the flip side of the risk, builds confidence in systems which function well and prepares units for dealing with threat scenarios in the field.
Option #3: The DoD requires the passing of a sort of “cybersecurity sea trial” where the procured system is put through a series of real-world challenges to see how well it holds up. The optimal way to do this could be having specialized red teams assigned to program management offices that test the products.
Risk: As with Option #2, this option could create significant delays or hurt confidence in a system. There is also the need for this option to utilize a truly neutral test to avoid it becoming a check-box exercise or a mere capabilities demonstration.
Gain: If applied properly, this option could give the best of all options, showing how well a system performs and forcing vendors to plan for this test in advance. This also helps guard against the complacency associated with Option #1. Option #3 also means systems will show up to the field already prepared to meet their operational requirements and function in the intended scenario and environment.
Other Comments: Because of advances in technology, almost every function in the military is headed towards a mix of autonomous, semi-autonomous, and manned systems. Everything from weapons platforms to logistics supply chains are going to be dependent on robots, robotic process automation, and artificial intelligence. Without secure resilient networks the U.S. will not achieve overmatch in speed, efficiency, and effectiveness nor will this technology build trust with human teammates and decision makers. It cannot be overstated the degree to which reaping the benefits of this technology advancement will depend upon the U.S. application of existing and new cybersecurity frameworks in an effective way while developing U.S. offensive capabilities to deny those advantages to U.S. adversaries.
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