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A new effort to revive a very old concept

An April 18th article in the on-line blog "The Drive," entitled "The U.S. Army Wants to Call in Cyber Attacks Like Artillery Fire," reports that a recent experimental exercise at Fort Sill used a pair of specially outfitted all-terrain vehicles to practice finding and killing drones of the sort that increasingly are proliferating over the world's battlefields.

No kinetic engagement is involved. The two systems, unoriginally named "Hunter" and "Killer," use advanced electronics to detect the unmanned aerial vehicles and disrupt their avionics respectively.

Bringing down drones is just one of the capabilities with which the systems' developers at the Army's Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) are proposing to equip them, however.

"The Killer vehicle reportedly has undefined "cyber" capabilities," reports the article. "According to the Army, a soldier might eventually be able to call in a cyber attack just like an artillery strike."

That's an interesting claim. Just how a such a mobile system might penetrate and infect or manipulate an enemy computer system, the classic definition of a cyber attack, remains unclear.

In contrast, offensive electronic warfare systems designed to intercept and read or jam enemy radio communications have been around for many years. As the article points out, Russian forces and their allies in Syria and Ukraine have routinely employed such systems.

Hence, it adds, "It seems more likely that Killer has similar gear that can find various signals and then jam or intercept those transmissions, or other intelligence gathering capabilities, rather than some sort of Hollywood-esque mobile hacking arrangement."

What's really novel about the article, though, is AMRDEC's suggestion that such electronic warfare systems might operate in an "on-call" mode similar to artillery fire. Interestingly, that same suggestion appeared in a Fort Sill "futures" concept written nearly 20 years ago [Disclosure: the writer assisted in drafting it].

"From an operational standpoint," the concept noted, "there may be little difference between an explosive munition that destroys a hostile weapon and an electronic signal that scrambles its operating circuitry or feeds it false targeting information," adding "the Air Force and Navy long ago integrated control of offensive Information Operations and lethal attack. The Army must do likewise."

That never happened, and for good reason. Harmonizing lethal and electronic attack proved much more complicated both institutionally and operationally than Fort Sill's concept developers anticipated.

Institutionally, while the Fires Center at Fort Sill owns proponency for fires-and-effects integration, responsibility for cyber operations and electronic warfare continues to reside at the home of the Signal Corps at Fort Gordon, Georgia, while collecting and exploiting electronically-derived intelligence remains the responsibility of the Military Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

Operationally, rapid integration of intelligence, offensive electronic warfare, and lethal fires in the field has proved intrinsically complicated and time-consuming for signal, intelligence, and fires agencies.

There are historical and practical reasons for both the division of responsibility and the challenge of operational integration. Historically, artillery, intelligence, and communications capabilities grew out of different tactical requirements and tapped different skill sets. Practically, enemy electronic capabilities present divergent and mutually competitive problems for signal, intelligence, and fire support agencies.

What for one agency might be a desirable target to destroy, for example, for another might be a crucial source of information to exploit. Jamming a communications link might benefit one formation while preserving it unimpaired to manipulate might benefit another. Proliferation of digital information systems and their sensitivity only compounds the potential mutual interference problem.

It's above all this divergence in target utility and the potential for mutual interference that consistently has complicated integrating lethal and offensive electronic ó now including cyber ó operations. While such operations can in principle be harmonized with careful planning, doing so on the fly has until now proved an insuperable challenge.

Off-hand, it's hard to see how the technology with which AMRDEC is experimenting will by itself overcome that challenge. 

Systems such as those devised for Hunter and Killer might well facilitate the rapid electronic and even cyber attack of hostile systems from drones to targeting networks. But the crucial obstacles to mounting such attacks without careful and necessarily time-consuming prior coordination remain operational, not technological. 

Until procedures can be invented to insure that electronic and/or cyber attack doesn't recoil on its perpetrators, treating it like artillery isn't in the cards.

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