• An information systems technician troubleshoots the automated digital network system aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Greater network integration is vital to prevent an adversary from pre-empting a kinetic operation by purely a cyber attack. Credit: MC2 Mar'Queon Tramble, USN
     An information systems technician troubleshoots the automated digital network system aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Greater network integration is vital to prevent an adversary from pre-empting a kinetic operation by purely a cyber attack. Credit: MC2 Mar'Queon Tramble, USN

Cyber May Call the Shots in the Next Conflict

June 29, 2021
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The status of the network may decide the victor.


The next conflict between the United States and a peer adversary may be over before the shooting begins. A capable enemy is likely to begin with all-out cyber operations, and their success could preclude any kinetic response by the United States.

That point was raised by Vice Adm. Jeffrey E. Trussler, USN, deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare/director of Naval Intelligence N2/N6, at West 2021. The virtual conference, cosponsored by AFCEA International and USNI, is running live June 29-30.

In a breakout session, Adm. Trussler stated that future conflict is likely to begin with a broad cyber attack. Peer rivals have built up their cyber capabilities and clearly recognize the importance of networks to U.S. military operations. The onset of combat may be signified by signals flying through cyberspace, and that alone may be enough for an enemy to prevail.

“Well before anything kinetic is going to fly, there’s going to be a lot of cyberspace,” Adm. Trussler declared. “The kinetics may not even have to happen, because war is about the will of the people and the will of the government.” A crippling cyber attack could bring about a decision not to engage in kinetic operations, depending in part on public opinion.

“The different part of the 21st century, than anything that we’ve dealt with before, is the fact of cyberspace. There’s a whole different group of warriors out there,” he pointed out.

Countering those cyber adversaries will require greater integration among the Navy and its sea service partners, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard. “Integration is more important than ever in eliminating stovepipes within the Navy and within our partners,” the admiral said. This will require getting rid of those stovepipes while boosting interoperability.

“What we really want to get to is a position where what you have on your sensors, and what you see and what your picture is, is also my picture,” Adm. Trussler illuminated. “We’ve built great platforms with organic sensors and weapons with which to employ based on those organic sensors’ information. We now want to connect our sensors.

“We need to field new systems with the interoperability built in and more software-defined vice hardware-dependent capability so we can upgrade to that greater interoperability,” he continued. “We have to start now considering the platforms our C4I systems are going to be on—our sensors, our weapons, our communications gear are going to be on."

“Actually, if you were to start over from scratch, I would almost say, in the 21st century, we have to start with the weapons systems and those sensors and C4I systems and then design platforms around them,” he suggested.

While that might be a luxury the Navy cannot afford, it can tap industry for needed capabilities. Both sides must communicate with each other to ensure the Navy obtains the right equipment quickly. “That continual engagement with industry is what’s going to help free our minds a little bit about what could be done if we just get better dialogue around the problems we’re solving versus the things we want,” the admiral said.

“[Industry] can solve problems faster, they can innovate. If we would just … do less about defining requirements and more about defining the problem we are trying to solve and some parameters it must fit to solve—if we got to a dialogue like that, it would be more helpful,” he offered.

Ultimately, while industry must meet the Navy’s needs, it is up to the service to ensure industry understand what it wants. “It’s incumbent on us to set that architecture and those requirements so that, no matter of who builds or the capabilities that they’re bringing, industry can understand what it is we need and how to plug into that.,” Adm. Trussler stated.

“I am absolutely confident, and the more I have dealt with industry, there is no problem that the industrial base of the United States cannot solve.”

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