At the «Winning the Digital Warfare» Conference, which was held under the patronage of HH. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai in Abu Dhabi by UAE Ministry of Defence last November, Al Jundi Journal reporter M. Fahed AL Halabieh met with Mr. Paul Scharre, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and one of the most prominent speakers at the conference, and discussed with him challenges of digital wars, their impact on national security, the best ways and means to achieve victory in such wars, and some other related issues.
Can you introduce yourself to Al Jundi Journal, please?
I am a Senior fellow and Director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Centre of New American Security. We’re Washington DC-based think tank, and I am the only author of, Army of None: “Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War”.
Can you explain to our readers what is exactly meant by “Digital Warfare”, the topic of this conference, please?
Digital warfare is not a new or different kind of war. It’s an evolution of war incorporating more digital technologies; computers, networks, sensors, center fusion, and increasingly things like robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber war, electronic warfare and all of these military capabilities that leverage all of the technologies coming out of the digital and information revolution.
Do you mean that these are the tools of digital warfare?
Yes, indeed these are the tools of digital warfare and they don’t get rid of physical warfare, but they change and integrate the digital into the physical.
It seems that we have two kinds of digital tools, the visible and invisible ones haven’t we?
Yes, you’re right. Many of these tools can be hard to visualize or conceptualize, but they are real, though many people don’t see them, like the electronic warfare spectrum, or cyber tools; their effects can manifest in physical effects and destruction of information or equipment or jamming or extracting data, but they are less tangible and hard to conceptualize.
Which one of these tools are the most cost-effective for us to use, and which ones are the most dangerous or risky?
It really depends upon what you are trying to accomplish, and these all have different values. We’ve certainly seen that influence in Social Media operations, and cyber attacks against computer networks are things that are very attractive to actors around the globe both nation-states and non- state groups, and we see them increasingly being carried out and used to attack opponents.
To what extent have these tools been effective in the battlefields of current conflicts and in the previous ones?
They are certainly effective in disrupting operations. And I think one of the things that can be deceptive sometimes is that many technologies don’t work well at first. Early firearms, for example, didn’t work very well at first. They had many shortcomings at the beginning; they got banged, they didn’t work at long ranges, and they were not accurate. It took a long time before firearms evolved and became more effective, let’s say, than the longbow and crossbow and other tools of that time. Same thing was said about airplanes and tanks. There were debates at the early 20th. Century about tanks. Many people said why we would get rid of our forces and go to tanks. Tanks break down, they require fuel, they require maintenance, etc. We’ve been using horses for thousands of years. All of those things actually proved to be true. Tanks still break down, and they still need fuel. It’s just the technology involved and people found appropriate ways of using it. And so there is this early preview with many technologies, where there is a potential, but they are not quite there yet, and it can be easy to dismiss them, but I think we need to be ready to make that transition, to make that leap. Once the technologies are mature enough, they do or become ready to change the game of warfare.
Artificial intelligence (AI) systems (robotic systems) have weaknesses, the most dangerous and risky one is that they are jammable and when we send them to carry out a mission against enemy forces, enemy forces may turn them against us if they managed to intercept our communication with them. How can we protect our systems and our forces from such countermeasures?
Absolutely, that is a very real risk. When we think about this digital trend, we think about them in combination, so for example; cyber, robotics, electronic warfare, and artificial intelligence are all evolving rapidly due to the information revolution, but they intersect in very critical ways, so electronic warfare can be used to jam communications to a robot making it less effective. Or artificial intelligence can enable more autonomy so that we don’t need communications to the robot. Cyber attacks, hacking could find ways to manipulate the robot and take control of it, and in fact if it is more autonomous, it can be at greater risk. If you are hacked into a car today, it might be disabled and cause it to crash. This is a sort of remotely hacking cars. If you have self-driving cars (fully autonomous cars), they may be redirected (by hackers) to a new destination and create a mass suicide car attack. So these threats are constantly evolving and intersect in important ways, then we need to anticipate as we see how these threats are evolving in the future as well as opportunities and anticipate the countermeasures that others will deploy against us. If we want to use robotics, we need to know how people are going to attack our robotic systems. If we want to use artificial intelligence, we need to also study counter artificial intelligence, because all technologies have vulnerabilities. We have to think about how we use these systems in adversarial contexts to make them resilient and robust in real war time environment.
Within this scenario, don’t you think we need to be flexible and fast-responding to the new threats and in dealing with the adversary countermeasures?
Absolutely, there is this reiterated process of building new capabilities and countermeasures and counter countermeasures, and one of the real challenges is learning faster than the adversary, because it’s a continual process of adaptation.
Why do we have to be so fast- adapting and fast-learning? Is it because the threats are rapidly changing?
Oh yes. It’s astonishing. I spent all of my time working at this space looking at emerging technologies, and I am continually surprised by the pace of development. I bet in the next eighteen months or two years, we’ll see new technologies happen. It is happening faster than we expect, because technologies are moving forward so quickly.
Transforming armed forces from traditional forces to digital ones usually has supporters and opponents who do not easily accept the change or even refuse it. What is the best way/s to convince opponents to accept force digitization? Is it through education?
Actually, people used to do this through debates in which they discuss whether this new technology is revolutionary or evolutionary. Is it an incremental change or disruptive change? I found those debates very interesting and that is very constructive. And technology builds incrementally. Sometimes, it reaches a tipping point where it now radically changes the game in something. Smart phones are good example of this. Smart phones are built upon an earlier invention of a touch- screen iPods mp3 players and merging millet –phones. So when the apple phone first came out, people said Wow, it is only as you’ve taken iPod touch and have merged with a phone. Who cares? That’ not interesting. And before that when the iPod- touch came out, people said it’s just an mp3 player with a touch screen. Who cares what the difference is. Why is that matter? And so each of these built incrementally, but then you reach the point where technology reach some critical mass and now you have the smartphone ecosystem today with apps, the social media, with the ability for anymore; to record events, and create hashtag, and the facility to go viral, and enter radically different information landscape that we are living in, but it’s built on scaffolding of incremental change.
From your experienced point of view, what factors should armed forces focus on to win a digital war?
Identifying concrete operational problems that you need to solve. The literature in military innovation is quite clear actually. You need to well define your operational problems. They should be very concrete. These are the strategic issues that our military forces face. These are the operational problems we are trying to solve through brain-storming, war games, table top exercises and experiments, to figure out how we are going to solve them. And say that all these technologies are not technologies for their own sake. These are tools and a tool box to help us solve these problems, but how do they help us? They may help us do same thing we already do it, but a little bit better, may be differently, and may be radically differently. We have to experiment with all those solutions, but it should be towards trying to solve specific problems.
Is it affordable for small nations to transform their armed forces to digital ones, though sometimes, politicians in some countries underestimate the need for this, in the same way they look at cyber warfare which they don’t look at as a real or serious threat?
Well. Cyber warfare is certainly a real threat, whether they believe it or not. It’s attacking nations, threatening infrastructure, people use it to extract data. One of the interesting things about a lot of these digital technologies is that they are very widely available, in part because digital systems can be copied costlessly. So, look at, say, cyber malware. Once someone has gone to the ability to invest in creating malware, and then the kits are in the open, anyone can take that code and repurpose it. And we’ve seen, for example, codes from stock’s net which experts believe took a lot of energy and manpower to create that cyber weapon. People are using net code in other malware, just copying it and repurposing it. Then think about the implications of that. Let’s take a case of, say, a fighter jet or a stealth aircraft, if you have got a whole of them, you can’t just copy and paste to bring new ones, but this is not the case for many digital tools, and that means that many of them are widely accessible. We’ve seen non-state groups using robots, drones, ground robots, weapon stations, cyber tools and social media. So, these are really available to anyone, and they are quite affordable. And there are ways to then for many nations, particularly those with high technology actors to really punch up their way to do so. Let me give you one example; The Protector robot is an unmanned surface vessel, it’s a boat, it’s taken by Ecuador. It’s not a major military superpower, but they have this boat, they use to patrol waterways. So, this is a really accessible technology to any country in the world.
One of the major threats some countries are facing is represented by drone mass attacks (swarm attacks). How can armed forces leverage digital/cyber warfare to neutralize or defeat such threats?
Certainly, if you are worried about mass drone attacks, the challenge is to find ways of defeating large numbers of drones in a cost-effective way. Every time you shoot a one thousand dollar drone with a million dollar missile, you are losing, even if you manage to down the drone. So, that’s why there is a desire for cost-effective solution whether it is using other drones, or cyber means or electronic warfare to respond to them, and you have to do this quickly of course, because if you have large numbers of drones coming in, you have to halt the attack, the whole group in a very quick manner to defeat them and defend your forces against these threats. I think what we’ll see over the next two decades, warfare will evolve to incorporate more swarming characteristics and more autonomous systems that are communicating together, that are cooperating autonomously and teaming, whether it’s missiles that now talk to each other to coordinate their attacks, or drones or other systems.
How do you view the landscape of future digital warfare?
War is going to continue to evolve violence. I think what we will see is the continuation of the wrong trend in technology towards a greater standoff from threats just like the evolution from slingshot to bows and arrows, to cannons. Missiles and robots will continue that evolution, a greater standoff from threats. I think that we’ll see robotics, autonomous systems, and cyber tools increasing their scale. I think that people can carry out developing autonomy in a way that enables one person to do many things at a time. So, a botnet is one example of this today where a piece of malware then spreads across the internet or by itself infecting potentially millions of computers and launching large-scale attacks like distributed denial-of-service attacks. So this is increase in scale. And I think we’ll begin to see increase in speed. We’ve already seen it in stock trading, with automation-enabled the compassionate speed in the whole evolution of trading in domains that human could never operated, in trading in a millisecond. And algorithms are responding to other algorithms in superhuman speeds. I think we’re going to see warfare is moving to that dimension as well, particularly in cyberspace, and interaction to superhuman speed and an acceleration of potentially the pace of war as autonomy is used to process information and make decisions and even take actions faster than would be possible with human factors doing this all by themselves.
To what extent does this conference and similar ones contribute to enhancing our knowledge and capabilities of digital warfare?
Yeah, I think it’s incredibly important to have these conversations. To hear from experts where the technology is going, and then the real challenge is to make it concrete from the next step by starting to adapt this force in response to these challenges.
Interviewed by: Mohamed Fahed AL Halabieh – Photography by: Mohammed Alshaer