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Robots, Ray Guns, and Cyber War

by Daniel Foster
Three things that will define the future of U.S. defense

These days the U.S. military likes to think of itself as one big, happy family, and war planning is almost obsessively focused on multi-service, cross-platform synergies. The Marine Corps structures its missions around Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs); the Army trains its leaders at the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth; the Navy and Air Force are developing a joint “air-sea battle” doctrine to counter regional hegemons; and so forth.

In this spirit, the future of U.S. defense won’t be compartmentalized into “the future of the Army” versus “the future of the Navy.” It will be about weapons platforms and concepts that can be deployed across service branches, with an emphasis on interoperability and integration. Here are three such platforms that are slated to carry the American war machine into the heart of the 21st century.

Frickin’ Laser Beams
Though we’re still waiting for warp drive and light sabers, one part of the sci-fi dream (and Ronald Reagan’s) is here in the form of weaponized lasers. Laser technology has, of course, been around for decades, and the U.S. military has made various unsuccessful efforts to develop it for the battlefield. But the tipping point toward our “directed-energy weapon” future might finally be here, with a number of laser-based systems at last showing military viability.

An airborne chemical laser mounted on a modified Air Force 747, for instance, successfully intercepted three ballistic test missiles in 2010, and though that project has since been mothballed, others shine on. The most combat-ready example is the Navy’s ship-mounted LaWS (Laser Weapons System) platform, a solid-state laser that can track incoming targets. LaWS was successfully tested off the coast of California in 2012 and will be subjected to a trial by fire this year when it deploys aboard the U.S.S. Ponce off the coast of Iran.

Right now the system works only on small targets — it has been tested against surveillance drones and speedboats — by punching finger-sized holes in vulnerable areas. It would take a much higher-powered laser to work against larger and more fortified targets, such as missiles, attack planes, and other warships. But the Navy is testing a different kind of technology, called a free-electron laser, that doesn’t rely on a chemical medium to generate its beam and thus can produce a more sustained, higher-energy blast. Naval researchers say the goal is to produce a ship-mounted, megawatt-level laser that can burn through yards of steel, and all from a “magazine” that never has to be refilled, at a cost of about a dollar a shot.

Other directed-energy weapons are under development — from non-lethal crowd-control “heat rays” to the Mach 8 railgun, which uses vast reserves of electromagnetism to propel projectiles at more than a mile a second — but in 20 years the laser is likely to be the most common. Just how big a deal is it? One officer in the Navy’s office of research compared it to the arrival of gunpowder in the era of knives and swords.

Drones: The Sequel
We are already living in the drone era, with the odd contour lines of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper firmly stored in the public imagination. But they are just the beginning. The next generation of drones is already on its way, and it will focus on endurance, automation, and stealth.

Take DARPA’s (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s) Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), a wedge-shaped catamaran that can track ultra-quiet diesel-electric submarines across a 4,000-square-mile area for as long as 80 days, and can fully integrate with the manned elements of a carrier battle group. Or Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, a stealthy, flying-V-style drone designed to do something no other drone has ever done: take off and land on an aircraft carrier pitching and rolling in high seas. The X-47B has already made test flights and could be in operational service as early as 2018, bringing greater range and stealth capability than any of the Navy’s current-generation manned strike fighters, and allowing flattops to reach out and touch our enemies from farther offshore. Critically, both ACTUV and the X-47B are distinguished by near-total autonomy. Unlike current drones, they won’t be remotely piloted by a lieutenant in a bunker somewhere, but programmed for a specific task and then largely cut loose to execute it. You can think of them as the first “set it and forget it” drones.

The Navy is also in the earliest phases of developing a submersible version of the ACTUV, called the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV), that, besides having autonomy, would be designed for longevity — capable of patrolling as long as its manned counterparts on a single fueling. The same basic idea lies behind the super-efficient, hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye, developed by Boeing. Still in the prototype phase, this 150-foot-wingspan beast is designed to stay aloft for ten days at an altitude of 60,000 feet, and to serve as both a surveillance craft and a communications hub. The Phantom Eye’s ability to fly above the weather for days at a time, and its capacity to carry a projected 2,000 pounds in electronic payload, give it non-combat potential as well. Boeing is marketing it as a border/port-security sentinel and a disaster-relief all-star that could coordinate search-and-rescue at the same time as it picked up the slack of downed communications towers.

Nor does “stealth” just mean the radar-resistant coatings and cross sections of the X-47B anymore. Military researchers are in the prototype phase of building a collection of drones that look and move like critters — hummingbird drones, dragonfly drones, even a silicon jellyfish drone that flaps its way through the briny deep.

In 2011, elements from all four service branches under the U.S. Pacific Command gathered for Operation Terminal Fury, a massive war game conducted each year to test military teamwork in the theater. In addition to the usual assortment of contingencies and simulated threats — downed aircraft, disease outbreaks, humanitarian crises — the brass threw a curveball: a “playbook” of 161 separate computer attacks on PACOM command-and-control cooked up by Red Team cyber warriors that compromised the Blue Team’s ability to coordinate, maneuver, or even see its physical forces. At the same time, it tested Blue Team digital forces’ ability to contain and counter the attacks. It was the first time Terminal Fury featured a cyber component, and it was a sign of things to come.

In March of this year, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told a Senate committee that cyber attacks are at the top of the “transnational threat list,” suggesting that digital warfare against the United States’ physical infrastructure and financial interests could replace the improvised explosive device as the paradigmatic weapon of asymmetrical warfare in the 21st century. But it won’t just be terrorists and other non-state actors doing the damage. In real life, the “Red Team” is the People’s Republic of China, our greatest competitor for regional (and perhaps global) hegemony, and a state that backs up its formidable conventional and nuclear forces with hacker hordes.

Should it ever decide to get frisky, the PRC has the resources to launch what Leon Panetta called a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” — by crashing governmental and military communications networks, scrambling international financial servers, and turning our transportation infrastructure and power grids against themselves. These last, in particular, are examples of how cyber causes can yield “kinetic” effects. A few well-placed lines of code can make things go boom, derailing trains or overloading substations.

Fortunately, the brass has a plan. In March, Army general Keith B. Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command, announced the creation of a “highly trained cadre” comprising 13 “offensive teams” tasked with bringing the fight to our would-be cyber enemies. The new teams are part of a broader expansion of Cyber Command from fewer than a thousand full-time staff to 5,000. A number of “defensive” teams, tasked specifically with protecting Pentagon computer systems and the national power grid, were also created.

Nor is American cyber capability merely theoretical. If China can launch a Cyber Pearl Harbor, then the U.S. (along with Israel) has already launched a Cyber Operation Overlord, a massive, complex, and coordinated attack that set back the Iranian nuclear program by months or years via the now infamous Stuxnet virus.

It is now thought that early versions of Stuxnet were under development as far back as 2005, insinuating themselves into the industrial computers at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility even before it went online in 2007. In a lengthy dossier prepared after Stuxnet had already wreaked its havoc, the computer-security giant Symantec called it “one of the most complex threats ever discovered.”

Stuxnet used a “vast array of components,” including the first “rootkit” (a package that both gives the hacker privileged access to a target system and masks his presence from hackees) that could hijack the specialized “programmable logic controllers” (PLCs) that run most automated industrial processes. PLCs are almost never hooked up to the Internet, which means Stuxnet had to infect as many of the ordinary Windows computers in use at Natanz as possible — spreading itself like the Black Death through thumb drives, local networks, even printers — to increase the chance that one would eventually interface with the PLCs. Even so, it is believed that the attack must have required old-fashioned espionage — including spies at Natanz and the physical theft of highly protected code from corporate facilities — to go off. It took years for that to happen; but once it did, Stuxnet executed its core mission, reprogramming Natanz’s machinery to operate outside of its safe boundaries and ultimately destroy itself.

Natanz could go down as the first great battle, and Stuxnet as the first great weapon, of global cyber warfare. Oddly, the best sign of the military’s increased investment in cyberspace might be a simple accounting move: According to Reuters, just this month the Air Force officially redesignated six cyber technologies as weapons, better positioning them to win increasingly scarce defense dollars. More significant still, the six weapons in question are classified.

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