Incoming: What the Recent Past Teaches and Portends

December 1, 2020
By Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.)

When the United States entered World War II 79 years ago this month, it embarked on an unprecedented period of change. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, traditional notions of work, education, security and every other aspect of life in America were pushed into a new reality. Today—albeit without a declared war—deployment of technology has created similar conditions for society-level change that the country must embrace.

For the past year, in this column, I have called attention to a number of circumstances in which technology presents challenges and opportunities. This month I will recap those views to date, some evolutionary developments and progress that has been made over the last 12 months. I will also cast an eye toward prioritizing opportunities in 2021.

In our critical infrastructure, cyber attacks can cripple utilities, agriculture, transportation and energy facilities, so the protection and resilience of these targets is essential. State and local governments can prepare for this scenario by adapting plans funded by the U.S. Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal entities. The U.S. government has held several disaster-planning exercises, including recent ones related to the global pandemic. Analysis of each situation and its options can lead to effective responses by state and local leadership to improve the safety of citizens.

For humans, technology can be used to automate activities, process data and even solve problems with artificial intelligence and machine learning. It complements humankind’s ability to understand the environment, make decisions about information, apply intuition and take action. Balancing technology and human skills is particularly important for cyber operators who must apply the right context to data. The next couple of years could prove pivotal in using technology to assess effective operations in and through cyberspace and to determine sensor requirements across the domain for better operational understanding.

Telework has changed dramatically. Now firmly entrenched in the pandemic, it has led to employers putting longer-term policies in place to manage their knowledge workers. Telework is clearly part of the conversation as government, industry and academia try to find the right balance of in-person versus online interactions. It may be a couple of years before the right balance is found in each circumstance. But, the initiation-by-fire approach sparked by a critical need to maintain continuity throughout the COVID-19 era has moved the process forward by leaps and bounds.

The as-a-service model has assumed greater importance. Agencies and contractors increasingly understand the benefits of this cloud-based approach to obtaining services and getting work accomplished. However, there is still a need for more realization of related requirements, roles and responsibilities for governance. Modernization programs based on open architecture and standards will accelerate adoption of this model and lead to interoperability, scalability and many other promised benefits. The pace has slowed this year, but each military service plans some form of as-a-service in the near future.

And, above all, there is truth. Misinformation presents perhaps the greatest threat to the nation. Often perpetrated by foreign governments but shared by many others in the United States, false stories and facts create conflict and prevent unity. There have always been false or incomplete narratives, but the volume today threatens national security. If one area went from bad to worse in 2020, it was citizens’ trust in information. Whether grounded in government, traditional or social media, this lack of trust is trending in the wrong direction. Turning it around will take a grassroots effort, coupled with a top-down focus by all government and commercial institutions, especially social media platforms.

Threats to the nation are not always as overt as the attack in 1941. The low-cost, high-impact harm caused by cyber attacks will require agencies, commands and commercial organizations to adapt with structural, behavioral and policy-based changes, much like the country did after Pearl Harbor. To do anything less is to invite ambush because adversaries are increasing their effectiveness.

Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), is a vice president in Perspecta Inc.’s defense group. She previously served as director of cybersecurity plans and policy for the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Command, and she led the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM). 

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Great article. I worked on Ford Island 7 years ago and it included the 7 Dec Anniversary. I had a chance to chat w 3 veterans at Pearl during the attack. Very impactful conversation. Thank you. Mark

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