The Pentagon Needs a Strategy That Does Not Hinge on Fragile Networks

A failed wargame should make us think twice about “connect-everything” plans.

The U.S. military “failed miserably” during a wargame scenario last fall when the opposing force gained control of American networks in the first moments of the simulated battle for Taiwan. Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, made this stunning revelation not as a warning about the dangers of networking the entire military, but rather to argue that the U.S. must double down on its biggest point of failure and build an even bigger network. 

Yet what this failed wargame really proved is that the U.S. needs a strategy that does not hinge on fragile networks. All networks are fragile when the enemy’s survival depends on disrupting them, so building an entire operation around them would be self-defeating.

Every object that touches the network creates a new vulnerability, and some are quite simple and relatively easy to exploit. For example, in 2018, the Government Accountability Office reported several instances of engineers failing to reset default passwords when installing commercial or open-source software. Cyber test teams had only to search the Internet for passwords to gain access and seize control of the system.

This is how a pair of hackers used a Jeep Cherokee’s Uconnect cellular connection in 2015 to carjack the vehicle while it was being driven. They cut the transmission and disabled the brakes, causing the driver to drive into a ditch. 

Americans on the East Coast got an even better demonstration of these dangers when the hacker group DarkSide forced the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline with a ransomware attack in May 2021. Drivers in many areas of the Southeast faced gas shortages for several days, all because the hackers exploited a single compromised password.

These aren’t one-offs. Legions of hackers all over the world search for zero-day vulnerabilities, software flaws unknown to the designers, and then sell them to the highest bidder. Often these bidders are foreign governments seeking exploits for weapons.

The services already know how vulnerable they are. In January, the Army held the third iteration of its “Hack the Army” venture. Some 40 civilian and military cyberwarriors found 238 vulnerabilities, of which 102 were classified as critical enough to require immediate correction.

While the details of the recent war game are classified, these examples make it easy to imagine many points of failure the military could face if it relies so heavily on networking our capabilities. 

Reading reports of the U.S. military being instantly defeated is a particularly difficult pill to swallow given that the American people have paid a premium to purchase the very weapons and systems that provide an adversary the means to secure a swift victory. We have created a vicious spending cycle: Each software-enabled system increases our vulnerability to hacking, which means the Pentagon then needs to spend more to protect the weapons from cyberattacks. The Biden administration requested $10.4 billion for cybersecurity and cyberspace operations for fiscal year 2022. 

Some in the Pentagon recognize current danger. The DOD’s Defense Science Board published its “Task Force on Cyber Deterrence” report in February 2017, which warned that those vulnerabilities can affect everything from delivering food and water to directing our own missiles and bombs.

The task force went on to question the wisdom of making every military system vulnerable to such an obvious line of attack. It recommended that the Pentagon avoid plugging nuclear weapon systems into the network because doing so “widens their attack surface to adversaries.” 

So it’s clearly a mistake to assume the newest gadgets are inherently the most effective battlefield tools. Many iconic vehicles and weapons in American military history achieved their status not because they boasted cutting-edge designs, but because they didn’t. The troops understand the value of a simple weapon that can be relied on to work when it’s needed. Liberty shipsM1911 pistols, and the Jeep are examples of simple designs that did exactly what they needed to do.

None of this should be taken as a call for the Pentagon to scrap all networked systems in favor of their analog equivalents. Command centers would find it difficult to effectively coordinate efforts with superior and adjacent headquarters without being networked. But we must understand that with everything we add to the network, we are taking a calculated risk. 

And we need to take steps to ensure networked systems are properly equipped to foil hackers. Congress should mandate that the Department of Defense fully implement initiatives to test the networks and systems of all contractors to ensure they meet security standards prior to awarding contracts when cyber capabilities are appropriate. The Pentagon should also implement efforts to include cybersecurity as part of the basic design of future weapons programs. The Air Force’s Cyber Resiliency Office for Weapon Systems could serve as a model for the other services.

The Pentagon should also purchase the simplest possible tool to accomplish an intended task. If a mission can be accomplished without giving the enemy’s cyber-warriors a point of entry, that option is the proper one.

Selling this idea in Washington is tough. Americans have been conditioned to seek high-tech solutions to every possible challenge. But as the results of the wargame suggest, an overreliance on technology and vulnerable networks will likely result in our defeat in a future war. How good are all of these systems if they can be shut down in minutes and place our national security, the lives of the troops, and the American people at risk?