Transforming weapon systems cybersecurity

Defense contractors must think beyond large-scale technical upgrades and instead focus on promoting incremental changes that can measurably reduce risk now.

A recent report in The Wall Street Journal explained how the Navy and its industry partners are “under cyber siege” by Chinese hackers. The article cited one high-profile incident in which Chinese government attackers stole important data on undersea warfare programs from an unidentified contractor. Among the stolen information were plans for a new supersonic anti-ship missile.

While extremely troublesome, this news should come as no surprise when considering the results of a March 2019 report commissioned by the Secretary of Navy. The five-year study concluded that the failure to properly secure IT systems represents an “existential threat” to the survival of the Navy and Marine Corps and that few military leaders understand the "magnitude of the consequences.”

The Navy’s rude awakening is perhaps just what DOD needs to accelerate cybersecurity upgrades to its weapon systems across all branches, an urgent requirement that the community has understood for quite some time. But for a variety of reasons, DOD has been unable to turn its awareness into robust action.

The contractors’ mindset and its role in weapon systems security

From a contractors’ perspective, there are several barriers to convincing DOD decision-makers to upgrade weapon systems security: DOD's misconceptions that compliance with current security standards is enough to keep risk at a minimum, the inherent complexities of securing the DOD supply chain as well as budget and procurement challenges.

But are such counterarguments justified or rather an attempt to divert attention from the fact that the approach taken by federal contractors to motivate DOD into taking aggressive action on weapon systems cybersecurity has missed the mark?

The approach in question is the same one that has guided much of the federal contractor industry for many years, one which focuses too heavily on pushing comprehensive technical updates and not enough on recommending incremental but impactful transformations. While this "bigger is always better" approach isn’t always a net negative, one could argue that in the specific instance of collaborating with DOD on weapon systems security, it has not produced the desired results.

It is true that physical security to protect weapon systems is extensive, with numerous security personnel, check points and fortified entry ways requiring unique user IDs for access, but digital security still lags significantly behind. In fact, a recent DOD inspector general report found that U.S. ballistic missile systems lacked basic cybersecurity controls: There were no data encryption, antivirus programs or multifactor authentication mechanisms in place to combat cyberattacks.

To help expedite reconciliation of DOD’s cybersecurity crisis and secure weapon systems, federal contractors must think beyond large-scale technical upgrades and instead focus on promoting incremental changes that can measurably reduce risk now.

Cultural changes to improve weapon systems security

A new mindset for federal contractors will require more than a flip of a switch; it necessitates a complete cultural change, which, as discussed in a Harvard Business Review article, doesn’t happen overnight. Unfortunately, however, the cybersecurity of weapon systems is perhaps the single most important digital transformation initiative across the entire government -- there is no time to wait for a 180-degree course correction.

Fortunately, there are measurable and incremental mindset adjustments that federal contractors can initiate now to impel DOD to improve weapon systems cybersecurity. These include:

Commit to significant cyber resilience policies with customers. Historically, contractors have not raised cyber vulnerability issues with all of their customers. Contractors must formalize more of these discussions with suppliers and customers and explore vulnerabilities that occurred over a prolonged period of time -- and plan a cybersecurity strategy for the foreseeable future.

Reallocate funding. With time at a premium when it comes to securing weapon systems, contractors don’t have the luxury to go through a new procurement cycle and endure the contractual hurdles to establish new funding for cybersecurity solutions. Instead of waiting for the next procurement, contractors must consider re-directing existing funds, such as GFY19, toward cyber resilience.

Take advantage of scheduled system upgrades. Weapon systems have lifespans measured in decades. As new weapon systems are upgraded so infrequently, it makes sense to leverage the already planned development and operational testing associated with scheduled upgrades. Since these upgrades are few and far between, cyber resilience measures should be added to the upgrade portfolio. It’s worth the costs and risks of adjusting the system upgrade plan.

It is very likely that the winner of the next major war will be the military with the best cyber defenses. To prepare the U.S. for that battle now, the contractor community must push for incremental changes via cyber resilience policies, the reallocation of funding and the utilization of system upgrades rather than continuing to embrace a mindset that calls for comprehensive transformations all at once.

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