Military Computing: The Achilles Heel of Defense
With the emergence of cyber-weaponry, recent military data breaches, and hacks of commercial PC hardware and chips, perhaps it is time to rethink military computing.
At a recent conference I attended, most presenters plugged their own USB thumb drives into a PC connected to the overhead display for their PowerPoint presentations, with most attendees using conventional laptops on an open WiFi network. This is all normal until we consider a few ironies: This was a closed conference organized on a military base; and the PC for presentation and WiFi was networked into the whole military complex. The conference was about “cyber-weapons,” and a key topic was the “Stuxnet” virus, infamous for its spread via thumb drives and open networks.
This set me to thinking that the Internet has changed how the military works. Conventional PCs, networks, and browsers are now all in extensive use within the military, just as in civilian life. And while ruggedized computers designed for the military and tested rigorously are still in widespread use, more popular commercial computing devices -- e.g., the iPad, smartphones, and laptops -- are increasingly being adopted, essentially as a cost-cutting exercise, raising questions about the security and suitability of these products for military use.
The need for computing power also has stretched farther out, into the battlefield. Computers and electronic devices no longer just sit in a stable, protected environment. “Fit for purpose” testing is essential for the security of individual service personnel, a troop, or even a whole nation. The hazards that a device could encounter under extreme conditions are enormous. Added to this is the need for such appliances to be resistant to cyber-attacks and hacking.
Appliances may need to withstand shock and vibration, environmental dangers, or to perform in high altitude and thin air. Depending on the use for the product, they may need to be resistant to solvents, antifreeze, or grease. In some circumstances, extreme acoustic noise, as in a jet engine, could be an everyday hazard. The stakes are high, but military and aerospace (mil-aero) technology firms have the expertise to ensure that appliances pass the relevant Mil-Spec tests.
Meanwhile, technological changes are in rapid flux. High-ranking military officials want a share of the latest commercial products as much as anyone else. According to a report in online magazine Military and Aerospace Electronics, even generals ask for smartphones and iPads to be installed in transport aircraft.
Commercial devices are simple to use, have numerous customizable applications, global positioning, video streaming -- things that servicemen want while away from home for long periods of time. The problem is, these devices are disposable products that are insecure and would probably fail all but the most basic of military specs.
As the US federal business development manager for rugged computer specialist Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) put it in the article cited above: “If you drop it, it breaks, if it gets hot, it shuts down. It’s important that computers used by airmen have passed every relevant Mil-Spec test… as their lives may depend on it.”
Commercial products may not be easily integrated into the uncompromising situations demanded of the mil-aero arena. And that is even before the question of security is considered. Remember the security breach of AT&T involving the Apple iPad and 114,000 accounts, including those of many military officials?
The security issues that concern all of us can require even greater attention by the military, as expressed in a memorandum issued by the US Department of Defense in February last year. This document calls for “the safe and effective use of Internet-based capabilities, including social networking services (SNS) and other interactive Web 2.0 applications.”
Hmmm... possibly hard enough to manage on DoD-approved appliances, let alone on commercial products.
As George Orwell put it, "We sleep peacefully in our beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.” Perhaps giving our rough men iPads to depend on for the battlefield is not in their or our best interest. We have to ensure any of the computing they use is not only up to Mil-Spec standards, but also cyber-spy- and cyber-weapon-proof. This clearly involves a dramatic rethink about the military use of conventional technology.