Pentagon looks to the past to counter digital warfare of the future

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Evaluators from the Estonian Defense League observe soldiers attached to a Long Range Surveillance team as they search for relevant files on a laptop staged at the Cyber Challenge checkpoint during an exercise near Tapa, Estonia, on Aug. 8, 2015. (U.S. Army)
Evaluators from the Estonian Defense League observe soldiers attached to a Long Range Surveillance team as they search for relevant files on a laptop staged at the Cyber Challenge checkpoint during an exercise near Tapa, Estonia, on Aug. 8, 2015. (U.S. Army)

Pentagon looks to the past to counter digital warfare of the future

by: Tim Johnson | .
McClatchy Washington Bureau | .
published: September 02, 2016

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — For some U.S. service members, it’s back to digging foxholes, camouflaging camps and learning celestial navigation.

Just as the Pentagon acquires ever more whiz-bang technology, military leaders are preparing for what happens when their high-tech wizardry no longer functions.

Potential U.S. adversaries are growing more adept at disruptive digital warfare. They can shoot down satellites, jam communications and sever digital links between operators and their killer drones. Pentagon officials refer to what might happen next as “going dark” — a condition that could endanger U.S. military dominance on the battlefield.

“The idea of going dark is that you’re thrown back to a pre-digital age,” said Peter W. Singer, a military consultant and co-author of a 2015 novel, “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” that has been placed on suggested reading lists for some midlevel Army and Navy officers.

In such a scenario, stealth jet fighters remain grounded, robotic drones lose their human guides, GPS goes haywire and ship-to-ship communications can be reduced to semaphore and beacons flashing Morse code.

“You’ll be operating like a soldier back in World War I or World War II, where you may not know where the enemy is. You may not know where your fellow units are. You may not even know where you are,” Singer said.

So a “back to basics” movement is gaining steam in all the services, even as the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force seek to build a layered network that is more resilient than ever to attack.

For the past 15 years, the U.S. military has enjoyed dominance in the digital domain. The skies and airwaves belonged to the Pentagon to the point that soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq could carry personal cellphones and use them practically at will.

But in future conflicts with a more capable adversary — say, Russia or China — networks could go dead, and adversaries might find themselves battling in digital obscurity.

“I call this primitivization, and that is the ability to operate in an unconnected world,” said retired Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.