IT and Networks

Is COIN driving atrophy in Army network operations?

A key theme at TechNet Augusta, held Aug. 2-4 in Georgia, was that the Department of Defense Information Networks are an integral warfighting platform for all DoD operations. With that, adversaries have taken notice and tried to exploit vulnerabilities within the DoDIN to disrupt operations. But after 15 years of a counterinsurgency fight against technologically inferior actors, network defense and operational security now faces atrophy.

"What I will tell you is what we have observed over the last 18 months in particular is that we continue to operate under that mindset that providing communications, providing access to the network as a service and it's not an operation; and I think we're going to set ourselves up for failure," Maj. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, commanding general of the Army Cyber Center of Excellence and Fort Gordon, said at TechNet. "And that is our challenge; how do we move from being able to operate in a congested environment to a congested and contested operating environment?"

Some also noted that soldiers still face challenges in network operations.

"Units continue to struggle with the ability to maintain their network in the box. Sometimes that's a result of the world-class cyber [opposing forces'] actions; many times it's a result of their ability to maintain what today is a very complex network," Lt. Col. Chris Walls, deputy doctrine chief for the Cyber Center of Excellence, said at TechNet.

Walls told C4SIRNET that the atrophy is somewhat a result of the counterinsurgency environment in which network dominance was not contested.

"You get good at the things that you're pressured on and we weren't heavily pressured on our network. So our focus went to other areas," he said. "I think that as we go forward and we recognize that we no longer have assured dominance on our own networks that we will start to replicate in training centers so that we're forcing units to operate in the contested and congested environment...there is broad recognition throughout the force that the operating environment for us has changed, and it's changed significantly, and that the old paradigms are gone."

Walls added that units are working to understand the process and concept that they must defend their networks as part of a daily mission. Now, he said, units "are defending that network on a daily basis against a persistent threat."

Fogarty told the TechNet audience that the adversary has begun to view networks as a weapons platform and weapons system.

"They recognize that much of the secret sauce behind our success is something that we don't even recognize ourselves, and that's DoDIN operations. And they spent the last 16 years looking at us and developing ways to attack that critical capability," he said.

Regarding threat capabilities and the need to converge friendly capabilities, Col. Timothy Presby, Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager of cyber, said that "we need to be aware that we are very likely going to fight an adversary that is converging using [cyber and electromagnetic activity] integration, ISR and fires across full spectrum conflict. So unless we actually work together and converge our capabilities, we will be left short. So I just wanted to use that threat picture to lay the groundwork on why this is important."

Eastern threats

These adversaries certainly include Russia, which has demonstrated advanced capabilities in cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum, particularly in Eastern Europe.

"We're learning an awful lot from the environment in Ukraine, both the capabilities we've seen the Russians display in Crimea – electronic warfare capability at a tactical level that we absolutely don't have," Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of Army Europe, said at TechNet via video teleconference. He said that after a recent visit he made to Ukraine, an area in which Russian-backed separatists and covert Russian forces have displayed advanced capabilities, he's vowing it's an area the Army must develop.

When assessing the threat from nations or organizations such as Russia, John Willison from the Communications-Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center said it's about technical capabilities and how they're employed.

Russia's "technical capabilities aren't limited to them because they'll sell those technical capabilities to someone else, as will China, as will other folks," Willison told C4ISRNET following a panel at TechNet. "Now the way they fight is a different perspective and the theater is a different perspective as well," and he noted the importance of viewing the threat from a theater and regional perspective.

Several of Russia's tactics, one being their deniability, has been cause for concern.

When discussing Russia's actions to destabilize and send forces into Ukraine, Army Communications-Electronics Command's Commanding General Maj. Gen. Bruce Crawford asked folks to "think about the plausible deniability and how it might shape the operations of others, including Russia, in the future," he said. "Remember the little green men that were there?  Remember the discussions about that's not us conducting this invasion? One of the things that's causing some concern as you look across the intelligence community and other places is, are there going to be others who are going to adopt that same plausible deniability?"

The grim outlooks raise a big question: Given the threat landscape, can the U.S. catch up?

"From a technological perspective, we have sufficient expertise to be able to contest any of the adversaries we have right now," Walls told C4ISRNET. "The issue is that some of the training within the force and some of the capabilities we require we just don't have because…[in] the last 15 years our focus has been different."

Catching up, he said, will require going through the development process while simultaneously training forces in realistic, congested and contested environments, then "integrating that into our institutional training of soldiers and leaders in between the training and the exercise and the capabilities being provided to the force that will help close that gap between us and our adversaries." But Walls warned this will be a multiyear process.

In terms of other threat actors, TRADOC Capabilities Manager for Electronic Warfare Col. Mark Dotson cautioned on lexicon, noting it's not necessarily about threats to the U.S. but competitors.

"Who are our competitors in this space? Russia has definitely been identified. I think that competitors in this space, but not necessarily a threat, currently would be China or potentially Iran," he told C4ISRNET. "They're both very capable countries that have tools that would work in the [electromagnetic] spectrum."

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