The Wall Street Journal’s December 17 revelation that militant Shiites in Iraq have intercepted surveillance feeds from Predator drones highlights one of the drawbacks in information-age warfare. Everybody has access to new innovations emerging in the commercial marketplace, so it’s hard to maintain a warfighting edge for long if information technologies are at the heart of your concept of operations.
During the Cold War, when military power was denominated in hard-to-acquire items like nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, few players could hope to keep up with the Pentagon. But those days are over. Warfighting today is about wireless networks, laptop computers, data-encryption software and other tools that can be understood and obtained by a wide array of adversaries. With everybody utilizing the same tools, who wins could end up being determined by which side has the most money to spend on the common denominators of victory. That’s probably good news for us as long as we’re fighting Shiite militants, but it isn’t so clear we could beat China at the same game.
In effect, our technology has empowered every stripe of extremist in the world, and since we have chosen to produce much of that technology in Western Pacific countries where labor rates are lower, we have little control over either the intellectual property or production processes. The technology diffuses so quickly through commercial channels that we will face a chronic problem in the future of confronting enemies better equipped than ourselves in some facets of information warfare.
The example of the Predator drones is instructive. Their digital downlinks were not encrypted because military planners guessed that militants in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t be smart enough to exploit the signals. But it turns out that they were able to buy cheap off-the-shelf software that could acquire the signals using laptop computers and portable satellite dishes. So now the downlink transmissions will have to be encrypted, which is no easy task when you consider the number of aircraft and users that will have to assimilate new software. This may herald the arrival of a continuous struggle for control of the electromagnetic spectrum on future battlefields — a struggle we will lose despite all our money if the military acquisition system can’t keep pace with the commercial marketplace.
There’s another lesson here too, this one about just how great unmanned aircraft really are. The popular narrative from drone enthusiasts is that unmanned aircraft and digital technology are transforming warfare. But that is only half true. The other half of the story is that the new approach works because we happen to be fighting some pretty weak adversaries. Try flying a Predator near an enemy with radars, missiles and aircraft, and see what happens — it’s shot down in a few seconds. The same outcome could also be achieved using “non-kinetic” means — like jamming command links electronically. Without their tethers to remote human pilots, our unmanned aircraft are dumber than the lowest-I.Q. member of Al Qaeda.
Bottom line: we need to be realistic about the warfighting world we have fashioned for ourselves. Anybody can play, it’s hard to stay ahead, and a really capable adversary can probably beat us at our own game. Fortunately, really capable adversaries aren’t what we’re facing today. So while we still have some breathing space, we need to compress the time required to field new military technology, otherwise we may one day find our troops outclassed by zealots armed with the latest smart phones.
Find Archived Articles: