As software-based weapons and information systems start to touch all phases of conflict, military leaders are grappling with a new set of challenges.
Cybersecurity experts say the “NotPetya” cyberattack that disrupted computer systems around the world last week was most likely the work of a government intent on attacking Ukraine, where the worst damage was caused. If so, the episode raises disturbing questions about the shape of conflict in the information age–and about whether governments are adequately prepared.
Countries around the world are wielding cyber weaponry these days like never before. Russia is widely credited with previous cyberattacks on Ukraine. The ransomware used last week was based on software tools developed by the U.S. National Security Agency, and leaked by a hacking group in April. Governments like Russia and North Korea are almost certainly behind other recent cyberattacks. And cybersecurity experts generally credit the U.S. and Israel with developing one of the first cyberweapons, a virus called Stuxnet that targeted Iran’s nuclear program.
Should such attacks be considered acts of war? Will future conflicts play out on cyber battlefields as much as they do on physical ones? As Army chief of staff Mark Milley put it, “The first shots of the next actual war will likely be fired in cyberspace, and likely with devastating effect.”
While war is still conducted with fighter jets, assault rifles, and roadside bombs, the world’s governments and armed forces are increasingly bringing new kinds of weapons and information systems to bear. And these software-based systems may soon eclipse most others in the effect they have on the battlefield. At the very least, a shift is under way that will see software come to have a deeper and deeper impact on almost every aspect of conflict.
In short, software is eating the military, and it may just determine whether we win the next war.
CODING FOR WAR
I’m standing in an aircraft hangar in Palmdale, California, that’s longer than a football field, looking at the future of military surveillance and, in a very real way, of war.
Apart from the low murmur of engineers discussing flight tests and maintenance, it’s quiet around here–when a fighter jet isn’t roaring down one of the runways nearby. This is the high desert, test pilot country, not far from Edwards Air Force Base, where the most famous test pilot of all, Chuck Yeager, became the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound, in 1947. Yeager made that flight with two broken ribs, and was in such pain that he was unable to seal the cockpit without help.
But the aircraft I’ve come here to see has neither cockpits nor pilots. It navigates almost entirely without human assistance, and on glider-like wings 131 feet wide can stay in the air for 30 hours at a stretch. The hanger I’m in is owned by the Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the biggest defense contractors in the country, but the plane–a Northrop design known as an RQ-4 Global Hawk–is owned by the United States Air Force. It’s got its guts hanging out at the moment, quite literally: Its dolphin-like forehead has been removed to expose a weather radar unit and satellite dish, and its belly is flat and bare, as if it’s sucked in its breath to show you its washboard abs.
This is what I’m interested in. The plane’s underside is studded with a handful of data bus ports and a dozen small metal fittings called Universal Payload Adapters, all of which allow technicians to swap in a variety of surveillance modules on short notice. The Global Hawk can fly an optical bar camera that carries several miles of unalterable high-resolution wet film, a SYERS-2C multispectral sensor (like that used on the U-2 spy plane), or a next-gen MS-177 sensor, meant to outdo the U-2.
It’s cutting-edge surveillance stuff for sure, but what’s interesting about this plane is how quickly its spycams can be switched out. “Imagine downloading a new OS every time you get a new app on your phone,” says Scott Winship, VP for Advanced Programs at Northrop Grumman Aerospace. “You don’t want to have to go back and rebuild all the software in the airplane every time we change a payload.” But until recently, that’s exactly what you had to do. Now, thanks to a set of software standards known as the Open Mission Systems (OMS) architecture, what used to take two to three months of retooling and retesting now takes 12 hours or less. Instead of spending more than $200 million on an aircraft that can do one thing, Global Hawk customers like the Air Force, the Navy, NATO, and others get a multipurpose “smartplane” that can be quickly repurposed to fly a variety of missions, that can integrate new technologies with a minimum of effort, and which can provide data that a variety of military systems can consume.
While that may sound like common sense, building such robustness into the $600 billion enterprise that is the U.S. defense establishment is an almost unthinkably complex task. The Pentagon is making progress, though, in everything from unmanned surveillance aircraft to missile defense, cyberwarfare, AI fighter jets, intelligence analysis, robot sidekicks, and much more. The Global Hawk may have begun life as a conventional if powerful surveillance drone, but its modular nature and the technology that underpins it is the harbinger of a subtle but important shift in the way we approach national security.
Global Hawk Northrop Grumman [Photo: courtesy of Northrop Grumman]
BRINGING A NEW WEAPON TO BEAR
New technologies have always shaped the ways we go to war. From gunpowder in the 16th century to nuclear weapons in the 1940s to drones in the modern era, everyone from generals to grunts have sought the latest war-fighting advances as important tools of their strategic and tactical portfolios. Today’s conflicts are no exception.
But current developments look far different from the crossbow or the Gatling gun. It’s true that everything from autonomous aircraft to tricorder-like battlefield apps, self-aiming rifles, augmented reality visors, intelligence-mining algorithms, and much more are currently in development or deployed “in theater.” But there’s a bigger change afoot than the evolution in ways to monitor, safeguard, or kill people that each of these represents. Underlying all of them is a single enabling technology that is now being leveraged in the military more extensively than ever before.
That technology is, of course, software, which now touches more of the military complex than ever, in deeper ways: More and more weapons and surveillance systems rely on it; more and more tools are being created to take advantage of the possibilities it affords; more and more decisions are being made based on software algorithms that range from the relatively simple to the intractably complex; more and more developers are able to contribute to the vast libraries of code that the military runs; and more and more questions are being raised around issues like what constitutes a weapon and what constitutes an attack.
On the surface, this may seem like nothing more than the military entering the modern age. But look closer and it’s possible to perceive a dramatic shift underway in both the technology and the doctrine of war, in which software is becoming the pivotal element behind weapons and information systems, and is increasingly the thing that will determine who has the upper hand. Yes, there will always be one plane that flies faster than the rest, one tank that can take more punishment, one satellite that can see farther, one missile that’s more devious. But the real differentiator will be the capacity to bring information and computing capacity to bear, and to understand how tactics will need to shift to best take advantage of the new tools and techniques that commanders have at their disposal.
“More and more of what [the military] is doing is going to be software, and software-enabled,” says Pat Antkowiak, Northrop Grumman’s chief technology officer. “Throughout the [defense] community, there seems to be an awakening that this is all becoming much more fundamental. The potential for rapid integration and introduction of new capabilities built into a software framework, this is clearly part of the promise. This notion of being able to have rapid, highly automated prosecution of really complex tasks against an adversary who’s moving rapidly against you, that is certainly part of the benefit on the operational side.”