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Home News Archive Not Your Father’s War: Challenges of 21st Century Warfare

Not Your Father’s War: Challenges of 21st Century Warfare

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The November 9, 2009 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine featured a wide-ranging story on some of the challenges facing U.S. and allied forces in Southwest Asia and elsewhere. Ostensibly based on interviews and presentations from a recent meeting of the Association of Old Crows (a not-for-profit group claiming a membership of more than 13,500 individuals and more than 100 companies, focused on “the science and practice of Electronic Warfare, Information Operations, and related disciplines”), the article is essentially a litany of the threats and challenges facing U.S. and allied troops as they adapt to warfare in the new century.


The article quotes SecDef Gates as saying the future of warfare “will be more complex—where conflict will range across a broad spectrum of operations and lethality. We have to realize that the black-and-white distinction between conventional ware and irregular war is an outdated model.” The theories don’t match the reality of modern warfare.


For example, the article quotes Col. (ret.) Maxie McFarland, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) as saying, “We [started out] talking about knowledge-centric operations … and being able to act with precise force and accurate weapons within a framework that would allow us to know pretty much everything. What we’ve discovered … is that is just not so. That framework of knowledge and information doesn’t exist. You [still] have to fight for information.” Although new Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) technology and assets are being introduced into Afghanistan so fast as to constitute a “bow-wave”—in fact ISR analysis is still problematic because of various reasons. There is a lot of information, but the information is not always available to the warfighter.


Army Col. William Davis is quoted as saying, “Our Achilles’ heel is communications. Right now there are over 200 [coalition] systems at Bagram AB, Kandahar, and other places that don’t talk to each other. That’s not the basis for success.” The article notes that one industry official “had been asked to devise a communications algorithm that would allow seven types of intelligence gathering aircraft to exchange data.” Adding to the communication challenge (according to the AW&ST article) is the need to translate directives into as many as 20 different languages, as well as the “difficulty of sharing multilayered intelligence and a shortage of trained [analyst] manpower.” The article asserts that the coalition forces lack “automated intelligence tools, managing petabytes of data, frequency deconfliction, information sharing and collaborative operations.”


Efficient utilization of intelligence and reconnaissance information may be bogging down in a sort of “electronic soup” that actually hampers warfighting efforts instead of acting as a force multiplier. The article reports that “some warfighters are switching off technology because it is too complicated, distracting or interference-prone to be effective.” On the other hand, as we have previously noted, the installation of real-time ISR assets such as the Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment (RAID) as part of the persistent surveillance and dissemination system (PSDS) provides enhanced situational awareness and improved security.


The AW&ST article also discusses other challenges of the 21st century battlefield, which extends well behind the front lines and, indeed, into cyberspace. The article reports that “during the past year, ever-mutating opponents have produced surprises for military organizations around the world.” The article notes that French Rafale aircraft were grounded when the “Conficker” worm invaded the French Navy’s mission planning system. The virus also was introduced into the French Navy’s computer network, the Villacoublay air base, and the 8th Transmissions Regiment when “someone in the navy had used an infected thumb drive.” In January 2009, “the British Defense Ministry was attacked by a virus that also infected computers at Royal Air Force bases and Royal Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.” In November 2008, Pentagon computers were infected by a “cyber-worm” that caused 1,500 computers to be taken off-line, and led to a ban on the use of thumb drives.


In April 2009, hackers reportedly stole “terabytes of data” related to the design of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As the article notes, “The hackers apparently used some vulnerabilities they encountered on the websites of some contractors that were helping with the construction of the $300-billion project. They employed a tool that encrypted data as it was being stolen, so officials couldn't immediately realize what was being defrauded.”


As the article notes, the attack on the French Navy planes “was a classic cyber-operation.” It quotes a source as saying, “That’s a perfect objective—to make sure they can’t update their folders. That’s the kind of effect that [senior planners] would like to see from cyber. It has nothing to do with whether I interdicted cyber-infrastructure. I figure out what processes I want to hit, what systems supported those processes, and then I find seams and vulnerabilities. It’s a fallacy that a cyber-attack can be dealt with by a cyber-defense. It’s not about IT; it’s about operations.”


The AW&ST article reports that the U.S. is under such constant cyber-attack that “the definition of ‘success’ has shifted to containing intrusions instead of eliminating them. As SecDef Gates noted in a June 2009 memo, “our increasing dependency on cyberspace, alongside a growing array of cyber threats and vulnerabilities, adds a new element of risk to our national security.” This article reports that the Pentagon has spent more than $100 million in the past six years, “not on new technology or weapon systems, but on repairing the damage done [to] its computers from cyber attacks that occur almost every day.” To address this pervasive threat, in that same June 2009 memo, the Pentagon established a “cyber command” (USCYBERCOM) as a subordinate unified command under the U.S. Strategic Command. SecDef Gates directed that the new command was to reach initial operating capability by October 2009 and full operating capability by October 2010.


We frequently report on advances in aerospace and defense technology. As the AW&ST article reminds us, our adversaries are making advances as well, perhaps in areas in which we are vulnerable to exploitation. In 21st century warfare, securing the lines of command, control, communications, and computers (C4) and making effective use of ISR informationi may be more important than securing the lines of supply.




Effective January 1, 2019, Nick Sanders has been named as Editor of two reference books published by LexisNexis. The first book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Federal Acquisition Regulation. The second book is Matthew Bender’s Accounting for Government Contracts: The Cost Accounting Standards. Nick replaces Darrell Oyer, who has edited those books for many years.