The same highly connected, automated cyber capabilities that give U.S. soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines an edge over potential adversaries also create critical vulnerabilities. Because of a decades-long effort by the Department of Defense (DoD) to automate and connect weapon systems, they are highly software-dependent and networked, creating vast and complex cyberattack surfaces, extending well beyond weapon systems and subsystems to include the many ancillary systems they connect to. Nearly all U.S. weapon systems functions are now enabled by computers, and they were not built with the complex cyber threats we face today in mind. This means all capabilities – from powering a system on and off, to targeting missiles, to flying aircrafts – are at risk of exploitation.
A recent GAO study confirmed the gravity of this threat, reporting that “the DoD faces mounting challenges in protecting its weapons systems from increasingly sophisticated cyber threats,” and finding that all major acquisition programs tested between 2012 and 2017 had “mission-critical vulnerabilities that adversaries could compromise.” The current situation can be explained partially by the DoD’s choice to prioritize the cybersecurity of networks and traditional IT systems in the past, rather than weapon systems, meaning “an entire generation of systems…were designed and built without adequately considering cybersecurity.”
The DoD has dedicated $1.66 trillion to develop its current portfolio of weapon systems and ensure they work when needed. Accomplishing this will require a shift in mindset away from the traditional understanding of cybersecurity to a more integrated, pragmatic paradigm: cyber mission resiliency. Resilience is about building the capacity of systems to withstand disruption and continue operating with minimal impact on output or function. By beginning with the assumption that some disruptions will succeed and undermine operational effectiveness, government and military organizations can then focus on identifying, assessing, and prioritizing weaknesses that exist within the network structure and leveraging its strengths to compensate. For example, even though the interconnectedness of IT components opens the door for weapon systems to be compromised, it also creates multiple pathways for the system to heal itself and restore functionality.
To best accomplish this, organizations must treat the cybersecurity of weapon systems as a function of operational and mission readiness, involving both technical experts and mission understanding. Weapon systems owners and operational commanders can take advantage of advanced analytics to develop an in-depth understanding of the adversarial threat landscape as well as the security architecture of the system, including end components and sensors in addition to critical dependencies and potential vulnerabilities. But security controls must be properly designed and implemented in order to be effective, which requires organizations to pair operational understanding with deep mission-level experience and expertise. Because weapon systems rely on different architectures, interfaces, and protocols than traditional IT, it’s difficult to apply traditional cyber tools to protect, monitor, and assess risk. To ensure that focus and resources are directed effectively and efficiently, each subsystem and external connecting system needs to be mapped to mission-essential tasks.
Frank Kendall, a former DoD official, recently described the threat and danger of cyberattacks as one that “is pervasive and dynamic — it isn’t going away and will never be fully defeated.” By combining an enhanced understanding of cybersecurity risk postures with redundant components and changes to tactics, techniques, and procedures, organizations can execute their missions even in the face of evolving cyberattacks.
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