The War effect

In the event of a web collapse, one group who would be facing a more serious worry than whether or not their followers were responding favourably to their Tweets would be members of the armed forces.

PW Singer, author of Wired for War – The Robotics Revolution and 21st Century Warfare, warns that any interruption to either service would severely limit the operational capacities of military units.

“Operationally in Afghanistan, for example, units are defi nitely reliant on the SIPRNet [Secret Internet Protocol Router Network – the US military’s own classified communications network] for communications and intelligence data,”
he says. “Without it, you would have units yelling, ‘Where’s my intelligence, I’m about to go into this village in Afghanistan.’ There would be mass chaos. Not complete inability but definitely hindered ability to operate.”

The US Defence Department operates 15,000 separate different computer networks and 4,000 installations in 88 countries. Many of those are civilian and interestingly, while the SIPRNet holds the key to mission information, an interruption to public internet networks could cause far worse problems for the military.

“There are portions of the regular internet that underpin these operations,” Singer says. “Logistically, forces deal with commercial companies who get the soldiers everything from their ammunition to the food that they eat.”

A drop in service would not render us impotent, however. The means of deploying weapons would not be seriously affected. “Most of our launch capacity is not tied up in SIPRNet,” says Singer. “You’ve got 15,000 military networks out there. If I’m able to crack into SIPRNet, it doesn’t mean that I’m able to crack into a ship’s missile system.”

There have been glitches, though. Early in 2010 a routine software update resulted in an error that meant 10,000 GPS receivers – there are 800,000 US Military receivers attached to everything from aircraft carriers to individual bombs – were unable to log on to the network, making them impossible to track.

Technical failures to our internet connections aren’t really what defence departments around the globe are worried about; it’s the threat of the enemy getting inside our communications tools and changing the information within them that has the generals worried. “That could defi nitely have a worse effect,” says Singer. “Imagine if a hacker were able to change the data of a GPS target, to add three degrees to every 20th one. The resulting carnage would lead people to lose faith in the use of GPS.

“The concern is not so much the system going down, but reaching the point where it becomes unreliable. If a system
goes down, we can reconstitute it, but once the trust in that system has gone, it’s very difficult to get it back and that’s
a much bigger risk and, indeed, easier for adversaries to carry out.”

If we were to ever revert to non-net dependent defence systems, would armed forces just be able to regress back to methods that worked in the past? Mr Singer, who co-ordinated the defence policy task force for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, is in two minds.

“Would it mean you immediately go back to the same style or are you now so dependent on modern methods that you’re unable to operate? Perhaps now we’re more sophisticated we’d know how to use the older technology better. “Imagine if GPS disappears. I was able to get from point A to point B without GPS. But what about the generation that has grown up with it? How about that soldier in the fi eld that has always had GPS telling him where he is? If he’s forced to go back to using 1960-level methods, he may not be able to operate.”

More on: What would happen if the internet was switched off?: Keys to the internet I Life without the internet I The War effectI Wall Street Crash 2.0

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