If It Isn’t Broke…
Just because something seems dated or isn’t sporting the latest gadgetry doesn’t mean it no longer has its place on the battlefield. Many iconic weapons and vehicles in American military history achieved their status not because they boasted cutting-edge designs, but because they didn’t. The troops tend to venerate simple weapons and technology that can be relied on to work when they’re needed. Liberty ships, M1911 pistols (which were in Army service for 75 years), and the Jeep are examples of simple designs that did exactly what they needed to do. Americans still see Jeeps on the road today because soldiers in World War II grew to love them. Jeeps could be used as machine gun platforms, makeshift ambulances, and artillery transports. At $650 apiece (about $9,000 today), the Jeep was cheap to buy, tough enough for any terrain, and easy to maintain.
This is not to suggest that the Pentagon scrap all networked systems in favor of their analog equivalents. Higher-echelon command centers, particularly at the brigade level and above, would likely not be able to effectively coordinate their efforts with adjacent and superior headquarters without being networked, for example.
But policymakers should carefully consider the amount of technology they heap upon tactical forces. A Marine communications officer recently made this point when he wrote about the difficulties involved in rigging high-bandwidth networks for tactical units. “It is common for Marines to troubleshoot data links for 18 hours straight, several days in a row,” he wrote. “This is partly because of the complexity of their systems but it more often is a result of having to coordinate with contractors at hub nodes who work in shift rotations, are unaware of the particular Marine Corps mission, do not operate within commander’s intent, and lack unity of effort.” He argues that the necessary information can be communicated through simpler and more secure low-bandwidth means.
In the cases where cyber capabilities are appropriate or unavoidable, Congress should demand that the Pentagon fully implement recent initiatives to test companies’ networks and systems to ensure they meet security standards prior to awarding contracts. Congress and the DoD should also support efforts to include cybersecurity as part of the basic design of future weapons programs.
As a general rule, the Pentagon should purchase the simplest possible tool to accomplish the intended task. If the services can complete a task without providing enemy cyber-warriors a point of entry, then they should pursue that option. In addition to actually fulfilling a specific task better than the low-tech alternative, the overall performance advantage for any high-tech weapon must offset consequent cyber vulnerabilities and additional logistical burdens. The services should reject any system that fails this test.
Admittedly, this is a tough sell. Only members of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex would be able to look at two different gadgets, both meant to perform the same task, and say, “Let’s buy the one that costs a fortune and makes us more vulnerable!”
Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, issued guidance late last year requiring standard language in future contracts requiring companies to increase cybersecurity efforts. Beyond that, the government’s cybersecurity efforts do not inspire much confidence. There is much more to do to ensure the military does not build the means to its defeat into its own tools. The starting point for this effort should be a reexamination of the conventional wisdom that high tech equals better tech.