Pentagon looks to the past to counter digital warfare of the future

by Tim Johnson
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — For some U.S. service members, it’s back to digging foxholes, camouflaging camps and learning celestial navigation.

Just as the Pentagon acquires ever more whiz-bang technology, military leaders are preparing for what happens when their high-tech wizardry no longer functions.

Potential U.S. adversaries are growing more adept at disruptive digital warfare. They can shoot down satellites, jam communications and sever digital links between operators and their killer drones. Pentagon officials refer to what might happen next as “going dark” — a condition that could endanger U.S. military dominance on the battlefield.

“The idea of going dark is that you’re thrown back to a pre-digital age,” said Peter W. Singer, a military consultant and co-author of a 2015 novel, “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” that has been placed on suggested reading lists for some midlevel Army and Navy officers.

In such a scenario, stealth jet fighters remain grounded, robotic drones lose their human guides, GPS goes haywire and ship-to-ship communications can be reduced to semaphore and beacons flashing Morse code.

“You’ll be operating like a soldier back in World War I or World War II, where you may not know where the enemy is. You may not know where your fellow units are. You may not even know where you are,” Singer said.

So a “back to basics” movement is gaining steam in all the services, even as the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force seek to build a layered network that is more resilient than ever to attack.

For the past 15 years, the U.S. military has enjoyed dominance in the digital domain. The skies and airwaves belonged to the Pentagon to the point that soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq could carry personal cellphones and use them practically at will.

But in future conflicts with a more capable adversary — say, Russia or China — networks could go dead, and adversaries might find themselves battling in digital obscurity.

“I call this primitivization, and that is the ability to operate in an unconnected world,” said retired Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

That’s why Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller is making sure training includes both sophisticated cyberwarfare and the most elemental traditional skills.

“You’re going to dig a hole, you’re going to camouflage, you’re going to turn off all your stuff, and you’re going to sit there and try to sleep,” Neller told a forum earlier this month. “And you’re going to try not to make any noise, and you’re going to have absolutely no signature. Because if you can be seen, you can be attacked.”

Neller said recent U.S. combat in the Middle East and Central Asia had offered conditions that did not reflect likely future battles. Soldiers and Marines operated out of fixed positions, returning each night to operating bases.

“We have not lived off the land. We’ve been eating at chow halls and drinking Green Beans coffee,” Neller said.

As U.S. reliance on military digital technology has risen, so has the desire of smaller adversaries to disrupt it.

“Everybody’s thinking how to keep the U.S. military off their space … . Even having a modest capacity to jam things has a big payoff,” said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center in Washington.

In March, the head of the Air Force Space Command, Gen. John E. Hyten, told a congressional panel that China and Russia were refining technology to destroy U.S. satellites with ground-based lasers or covert space vehicles that can slam into the satellites.

A more likely attack, Donnelly said, would be aimed at blocking the U.S. military network in a limited geographic area. “You may lose some capability but not all capability,” Donnelly said. Still, that’s something a determined foe can take advantage of.

Jamming and technical know-how on disrupting communications are rising in other nations, said Kathleen Hicks, a former deputy undersecretary at the Defense Department who now is senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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