The US military and intelligence communities have spent much of the last two decades fighting wars in which the US significantly over-matched its opponents technologically—on the battlefield and off. In addition to its massive pure military advantage, the US also had more sophisticated electronic warfare and cyber capabilities than its adversaries. But those advantages haven’t always translated into dominance over the enemy. And the US military is facing a future in which American forces in the field will face adversaries that can go toe to toe with the US in the electromagnetic domain—with disastrous physical results.
That’s in part why the Army Cyber Command recently experimented with putting “cyber soldiers” in the field as part of an exercise at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. In addition to fielding troops to provide defensive and offensive cyber capabilities for units coming into NTC for training, the Army has also been arming its opposition force (the trainers) with cyber capabilities to demonstrate their impact.
That impact was demonstrated clearly in May, when an armored unit staging a simulated assault at NTC was stopped dead in its tracks by jamming of communications. As the unit’s commanders attempted to figure out what was wrong, a simulated artillery barrage essentially took the unit out of action.
Cyber attacks damaged Iran’s nuclear research facilities by using Stuxnet. By some accounts, cyber attacks have also interfered in North Korea’s missile testing with mixed results. But the Defense Department’s declared cyber war against the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh) has had disappointing results. The “cyber-bombs” former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said were being dropped on ISIS forces have had little effect on their battlefield effectiveness or their ability to communicate and recruit over the Internet. Network attacks against ISIS’ communications infrastructure don’t do much, simply because that infrastructure is ad-hoc and distributed—and can easily be replaced and re-established when disrupted.
Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated that Russia has been developing electronic warfare and cyber warfare capabilities for the battlefield, integrating them directly into every combat unit. As a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted, the US military and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies are facing a present—not a future—in which they have to assume that they will face “offensive [electronic warfare] capabilities preventing acceptably free use of the radio spectrum,” and “forms of electronic and cyber attack, including exploitation of personal data harvested from any connected device brought into an operational area.”
That’s turning out to be a problem, as a flag-level officer observed at NATO’s Maritime Commanders Meeting in 2015. The officer, who was not identified because he was speaking under the Chatham House Rule, said that the military was dealing with the effects of “a generation that has lost the skills of maneuver warfare in contested domains—land, air, sea, and cyber.”
Cyber training, sir
The US Army has been promoting the idea of a “cyber warrior” since at least 2011. That’s when Vincent Viola—the founder of the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center and, more recently, one of President Donald Trump’s candidates for Army Secretary—urged the Army to create a Cyber Warfare Ranger school to create the kinds of troops needed for a “cyber battalion.”That “cyber battalion” is the 781st Military Intelligence Battalion, based at Fort Meade. Formerly called the Army Network Warfare Battalion, the 781st has provided cyber support teams for other Army units, and it has provided the capabilities tested at the NTC. Army Cyber Command is now looking at how to formalize the integration of cyber support teams from the 781st into combat units for both training and deployment.
The US is sharing its lessons with other NATO members. Last October, the Army and units from several NATO countries tested new equipment and tactics during Bold Quest, a training exercise at Fort Stewart, Georgia. That led to a longer collaboration with the Dutch Defense Cyber Command—which is looking at how cyber support can be added to Dutch Special Operations Force units.