Best Defense

Essay contest (6): We need personnel aware of a new electronic environment and also to move away from COTS

Since the Cold War, the U.S. military has put a strong emphasis on quality over quantity when approaching asset acquisition and development.



By Brad Howard
Best Defense contest entrant

Since the Cold War, the U.S. military has put a strong emphasis on quality over quantity when approaching asset acquisition and development. This has created a situation in which the United States leads the world by a large margin in regard to the development of net-centric warfare capabilities. Unfortunately for the United States, the reliance on the EM spectrum has created vulnerabilities to operations in high threat environments. As reliance on C5I systems has increased, the U.S. military’s first step in safeguarding against future threats in the information age should be to ensure that personnel are trained and equipped to overcome a high threat, aggressive electronic warfare environment against an equally equipped conventional foe.

Also, over the last thirty years, information warfare and electronic warfare have evolved to the point where they overlap in scope. If an F/A-18 Growler is jamming numerous UHF frequencies used to transmit targeting location data, as well as simple character message communication over both traditional datalinks and other software/hardware combinations, than EW warfare has impacted information capabilities. This holds true today more so than ever before, because almost every system has been designed to be networked to something.

The information age has resulted in a decrease in the fog of war as satellite communications and GPS positioning have enabled near real time communication and charting across the battlespace. During operations in the 1990s, and recently in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military held the information warfare high ground, and as a result, over a decade of service members are reliant on having a relatively clear view of the battlespace. As personnel who interact with information systems, especially ones that directly impact combat environments, move through training pipelines, it is important that the skillsets of cadre who worked without the benefit of reliable, modern information technology relay their knowledge to the next generation.

One area specifically that the U.S. military needs to focus on in regards to insulated systems would be to move away from off the shelf technological acquisitions. Recent conflicts created a situation where results were needed quickly, and development units such as Big Safari delivered. However there has been bleed over into more traditional development cycles, and utilizing off the shelf microchips, hard drives, and software creates innate vulnerabilities. The idea of “military spec” was once looked at as top of the line. Today this is no longer the case, Moore’s law has engendered a situation where the iPhone in your pocket may be more capable than a strategic bombers, even though the bomber doesn’t need to check Facebook (yet).

This isn’t to say that the U.S. military should revert to a 1950s technological mindset. It is to say that we require weapons technology that is insulated from outside degradation, either through satellite connection loss or malicious software intrusion. manufacture. This is true not just for frontline equipment, but also for NIPR based hardware and software. The combination of proper training and the development of insulated information systems should be the first step for the U.S. military takes to adapt to the information age in the 21st century. Failure to do so could lead to a vulnerability chain that a capable adversary could exploit to great advantage.

Brad Howard holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He served in the Air Force from 2006 to 2010. He currently works for the Smithsonian Institution’s  Central Audio Visual Branch. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or the United States Air Force.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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