Cyber-warfare’s own perils


TWO world wars in the last century saw tens of millions of casualties in what was still essentially hand-to-hand fighting. But bomber aircraft changed the face of conflict. Bombing by massed formations of Allied aircraft over Nazi Germany made up for the lack of precision technology by carpeting towns and cities with incendiaries and high explosives. By 1945, so great had been the devastation caused, the Americans and British had virtually run out of fresh targets. This led to the still highly-controversial aerial destruction of Dresden on the grounds that this historic city, which had up until then been largely untouched, was near a railway junction.

It was the catastrophic consequences of the US atomic bomb attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that proved the awesome power of nuclear weaponry, which in its turn has thus far prevented a further worldwide conflagration. Instead, the so-called Cold War unleashed substitute conflicts in which the Communist bloc and the Western powers generally fought out their battles in Third World countries, more often than not using local rivals as their proxies. The only exceptions were the Korean War, Washington’s calamitous intervention in Vietnam and Moscow’s humiliating involvement in Afghanistan.

Technology has taken the concept of proxy wars one step further by adding the use of drones and cruise missiles controlled by “pilots” thousands of miles away from targets, on which vast amounts of signals and visual intelligence have been gathered by satellites in geostationary orbit. The flight systems and avionics on the latest warplanes are so complex they require high-powered onboard computers even to keep them in the air. It seems a given that this generation of fighter aircraft will be the last to need a human pilot.

The Americans, Chinese and Russians are also heavily invested in bringing autonomous robotics to ground warfare. US research on putting soldiers into massively powerful exoskeletons certainly smacks of the Marvel Comics superheroes but then so did much of the warfare technology which is now a commonplace on the battlefield.

However, the common denominator for all these developments is computer code. Without this digital brainpower, even the most destructive weaponry is simply a useless pile of circuits and material. It would seem axiomatic that the security and protection of these programs is of the most crucial importance. It therefore beggars belief that America’s Government Accountability Office has just produced a report which found that the majority of weapons systems adopted by the Pentagon in the last five years could be “easily hacked”.

The problems ranged from the egregious failure to change default passwords to sloppy coding, including cutting and pasting of lumps of legacy code that were in the public domain. The suggestion is that if friendly US hackers could break into mission-critical warfare systems, then rivals, be they from the likes of China, Russia, Iran or Israel, had probably already done so and concealed programs that could monitor, control or disable American weapons systems in time of conflict.

It must be asked whether the Chinese, Russian, Iranian or Israeli militaries have been equally careless and US military hackers have thus penetrated their weapons systems. Moreover, this astonishing GAO report could actually be disinformation, designed to confuse Washington’s cyber-foes. Indeed, many Americans will be hoping fervently that this is the case.