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Hi-Tech War

Ivan Oelrich

Ivan Oelrich is the Vice President for Strategic Security at the Federation of American Scientists ( He received his BS from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Princeton University, both in chemistry. He had a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and later conducted research and taught in the Physics Department of the Technical University of Munich in Germany. He has held senior research staff positions at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a research center supporting the Office of the Secretary of Defense; the Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency of the US Congress; and the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Dr. Oelrich's research has focused on sizing military forces, appropriate military technology, and arms control, in particular the crafting of productive arms control measures and their verification.

Regarding the radio and satellite system that was used to monitor where other tanks, trucks, and soldiers are: does that system have limitations, like other radio systems, due to geography? I am an amateur radio operator and I find it hard to believe that terrain would have no effect at all.

The system you are asking about is called the FBCB2, or sometimes just the "Blue Force Tracker" and it is sometimes considered part of a "battlefield Internet." It is an evolving system so the technical details continue to change but, like the Internet, it is more than particular pieces of equipment. It is a set of procedures and computer codes that allows vehicles, and sometimes even individual soldiers, to communicate their positions on the battlefield. The Internet works for you whether you are connected through your telephone line, a satellite link, your cable TV company, or a dedicated optic fiber; and it works whether you are using a Dell or Apple computer. Similarly, the FBCB2 is not a particular set of radios or other communication gear. Some vehicles will communicate through a variety of battlefield radios, but others will communicate by satellite links. And the system is a "net," so if one vehicle loses contact with its headquarters, it can probably still reach a nearby friendly vehicle and that vehicle will pass the message on to the next, and the next, and so on until it eventually does get to headquarters. So, yes, terrain does have an effect. A lone vehicle at the bottom of a ravine might drop out of communication with the net completely. But the system is designed to compensate for local interruptions in communication, whether from terrain or other causes and is, overall, quite robust.

In this new era of "network-centric warfare," are there concerns about the safety of the network? Does the military have defenses in place to prevent hackers from, say, taking control of or manipulating the GPS guidance systems? What will be the role of open source software in military applications, if there will be one?

The military is very much aware of the danger of having enemy forces get into any military network and has taken a combination of precautions. For thousands of years, military commanders have recognized the need for secure communication and have used various ciphers to send secret messages. Today is no different. The military uses computer-based encryption codes to allow secure communications. Messages are encrypted or scrambled so without the proper decryption "key" the enemy cannot read the messages. But without the proper key, an enemy cannot create encrypted messages either. In other words, unless you have the proper encryption key, you can send me a message but it will just be gibberish when I pass it through my decoder. This is the first line of defense on the military net; no one without the proper encryption software is able to send any meaningful signals into the network. If you can't even get a message into the network, then you can't hack it. There are, of course, other layers of defense; for example, each machine can be uniquely identified so the system knows when an unauthorized machine links to the net. For the GPS system in particular, it was designed from the beginning to be a military system and is well protected from hackers. Another way to degrade the GPS system is to simply try to "jam" the signal, that is, broadcast a lot of noise on the same frequency to drown out the signal from the satellites. This does have the effect of reducing the accuracy of the GPS system, but the jammers give their location away by broadcasting all those radio signals and they are then easy to attack.

About open source operating systems: The military makes a distinction between militarily critical missions and capability that is just nice to have. If you see a colonel giving a PowerPoint presentation from his laptop computer, you can be certain that he is using commercial software, with all the worries about viruses and junk e-mail. But actual military systems tend not to use truly open source or commercial computer operating systems or codes. The source code is available to the military user, however, so to them it is "open source," even if it isn't open to the world.

Regarding the Global Hawk, the unmanned surveillance plane that provided aerial reconnaissance during the recent Iraq war: Is this the only "drone" plane, that flies without a human pilot, in use by the military? Also, is there currently any development of unmanned planes that could be used for offensive purposes? Do you anticipate a time when tactical weapons would be deployed by a plane that did not have a human pilot? And, on this note, are there any other unmanned vehicles in use or being developed by the military (tanks, humvees, submarines, etc.)?

The use of radio-controlled aircraft goes back to World War II, but current advances in microelectronics, long-range sensors, computers, so-called "fly-by-wire" flight control, and communications are causing a surge in unmanned vehicle developments and several nations are building them. Thus, the Global Hawk is only one of several unmanned reconnaissance aircraft in use around the world today. The Global Hawk is large for a UAV, being roughly the size of a small private plane. The United States also routinely uses the smaller Predator and the Hunter UAVs. (UAVs are finding non-military uses as well, for example, for environmental surveys.) It is easy to see the next military step: attach a precision-guided bomb to an unmanned aircraft and use it not just to watch targets, but to attack them. The United States has done just that with the Predator, which can carry a Hellfire missile and has been used to attack targets in Afghanistan.

Other types of vehicles have been remotely controlled but aircraft are the ideal vehicles for quite mundane reasons. Driving a surface vehicle is much harder because of all the things it can run into. A remotely-controlled tank has to avoid lakes, trees, ditches, mine-fields, and other tanks. Flying an airplane is simple in comparison. Small submarines could be piloted remotely if there were some way to get the control information to the submarine, but radio waves do not penetrate very far at all into water. That is why the remotely controlled submarines, for example, the ones used to explore sunken ships, are attached by cable to their operators above and this, of course, severely restricts their range.

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