On July 4, 2006, when North Korea shocked the world with its (fortunately dismal) nuclear weapon test, Washington was enduring one of its frequent stormy summer weather patterns. As someone else recalled here, fast moving storms with lightning, hail and strong winds fell upon a hot and humid National Mall during that Fourth of July – only to be followed by suddenly clearer skies just in time for the fireworks.
But across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, a virtual storm apparently was still wreaking havoc. According to recent comments from the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as North Korea also test-launched long- and short-range missiles, the thunderstorms in Washington caused the secure voice communications to fail.
Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright recently cited that example in calling on current and future national security leaders to reassess information technology, from how the United States buys it, to how the country uses it to avoid or win wars.
“Decisions are made much quicker, and they are much better informed, when information can be exchanged visually and digitally,” Cartwright told an audience at the annual Air Force Information Technology Conference in Montgomery, Ala., last week. “But we have policies against it because we don’t want to risk that system being compromised. But our voice and circuit-based systems have vulnerabilities, too. Everything has vulnerabilities. The question is, how do you balance the risk and the advantage, and how do you keep moving in that environment, because it is never static.”
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs looms large these days. (DOD photo)
Most military capability has been built in reaction to known threats, the vice chairman further said, but IT can change that by offering better processing power and storage and thus better predictive analysis quicker to the battlefield, including cyberspace. Yet it also forces leaders to rethink legacy capacities as newer capabilities become available.
Take manned fighters versus UAVs, the Marine general told the USAF audience. “A fighter has, among other things, radar, and it carries bombs and missiles,” he said. “The radar detects a target and feeds the information to the bomb or missile. It hits the target, and everything else that was detected or known by that platform is thrown away,” he explains.
“If the enemy changes the target or affects the detection,” he continues, “the platform is unusable, and we don’t know what happened for several series of sorties, and events and days and weeks and months. Then, when it’s time to change [it] because we’ve figured out what the adversary’s doing, an upgrade can usually take years, because we want to make sure we’re doing it perfectly the first time. Meanwhile, the enemy has moved on.”
On the other hand, Cartwright noted, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) “collects everything, records everything, and saves everything or [sends] it down to the ground.” Compared to a fighter, the UAS is more energy-efficient and can spend more time on station. Its processing and storage capabilities will “fundamentally change what you don’t know about the enemy,” the general argued.
Leave it to a Marine to have the wherewithal to tell an Air Force audience as much. If anyone was in the audience and cares to share how it was received, I’d be interested to hear it.