Defense IT

Army says smartphone, digital tech increase vulnerability

Whether they are on a training mission or in actual combat, U.S. military forces bring along a zillion electronic gadgets. That has been a trend for decades, and one viewed as positive--a sign of technological progress.

Now the Army fears that its massive electronic footprint is becoming a major vulnerability that could leave troops more exposed and open to detection.

Electronic signals emitted by U.S. forces make it easier for tech-savvy enemies to keep tabs on units’ locations and movements. The spying tools are relatively cheap and ubiquitous: iPhones, Goggle maps, commercial tracking software. “It’s an unbounded battle space,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr., Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence.

The idea that anywhere the Army goes there might be people out there “pushing pictures” fundamentally undermines “our ability to have operational security,” Ashley said at an AFCEA information technology forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

This is becoming a growing concern for the Army as commercial IT becomes more sophisticated and accessible. The service not only has to figure out what countermeasures it will need to thwart electronic trackers, but it also will have to rethink how it organizes and equips units, Ashley said. “We have to understand what signature we are actually emanating. We have to understand the signals that we are putting out.”

The Army over the past decades built an arsenal of advanced weapons, command-and-control, and communications systems that were designed to be difficult to detect — with features known in military-speak as having “low probability of detection” and “low probability of intercept.” That entire effort has to be adapted for the new environment, Ashley suggested. The proliferation of technology and how the Army will respond is part of a broad review of strategy and doctrine that is now under way. “We need forces to be ready and resilient” to fight in future conflicts, Ashley said.

Technology per se is not a menace but the “real game changer is how you operationalize it,” he said. And how adversaries might do that is hard, if not impossible, to predict.

The issue was also  raised last week by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley during a talk at the Army-Navy Club in Washington, D.C.

Milley said he worries that the “ubiquitous nature of information technology” could have stark implications for the Army. “Today, almost anywhere on the surface of the earth you have access to iPhones, to information technology of high quality, imagery, communications, you can get real time data on the location of people, equipment, formations,” Milley said. “I would argue that we’re at a point where almost anything militarily can be seen, especially large formations.”

Low-cost technology may also make it possible for enemies to produce sophisticated precision-guided munitions, comparable to those used by the U.S. military. The idea that they will have advanced weapons, along with information and intelligence tools, is rather frightening, Milley said. “When you combine the ability to see, especially formations, with precision-guided munitions, that is going to radically increase the lethality on the battlefield.”

The Army surely will have to adapt to these new realities, but these are not insurmountable problems, noted military analyst Michael O’Hanlon, of The Brookings Institution. “Battles will be fought in complex environments where the enemy will have a lot of information technology,” he said in an interview. “Generally speaking it’s a major concern.” However, “General Milley should not be fatalistic about the ability of the U.S. Army to hide in an electronically sophisticated environment.”

O’Hanlon, author of the “The Future of Land Warfare,” said the Army should be able to develop tools to limit the enemy’s ability to track Army movements. “We have to be able to do that,” he said. “If they are finding us because we are careless in our electronic usage, we are going to have to be more careful.”


About the Author

Sandra Erwin is a Senior Contributor to Defense Systems

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