Despite growing concerns from experts and the public about the security of increasingly interconnected machine networks and the potential dangers of artificial intelligence leading to “killer robot” technology, top military strategists are pushing forward with ambitious plans to vastly expand the Defense Department’s concept of “network centric warfare.”
In a recent article on the Pentagon’s pursuit of what he describes as “a giant, armed nervous system,” Patrick Tucker of Defense One notes that top officials at both the Navy and Air Force have brought up the idea in recent months.
“I want to network everything to everything,” Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, reportedly said in July, for example.
“Certainly, ‘network everything to everything’ sounds a bit like the setup for the Terminator franchise, wherein a fictional defense contractor, Cyberdyne Systems, convinces the Defense Department to link the U.S. arsenal to a single artificially intelligent entity,” Tucker notes. “Skynet, of course, determines that humans are a threat to its existence and uses its ubiquitous command and control powers to launch a war on humankind.”
Yet for all of their predictions of the future of warfare, military leaders cannot seem to envision any downside to inter-connecting “everything from F-35 jets overhead to the destroyers on the sea to the armor of the tanks crawling over the land to the multiplying devices in every troops’ pockets,” as Tucker puts it.
While interconnecting devices and networks can obviously have its benefits, there can also be benefits to not connecting, as media coverage of the implausibility of hacking a U.S. national election due to the decentralization of the process reassured us last fall. This is also the whole idea behind air-gapping, a security measure that the information operators of the Central Intelligence Agency, at least, if not their fellow national-security-minded colleagues at the Defense Department, know a thing or two about.
Somewhat confusingly, the military is promoting this massive scale networking plan despite apparently understanding that an adversary might very well try to exploit a weak link in the chain of the vast network it envisions for “electronic jamming” or other nefarious purposes.
“What would the world look like if we connected what we have in that way?,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force Chief of Staff, asked rhetorically in discussing the newly classified National Military Strategy this month. “If we looked at the world through a lens of a network as opposed to individual platforms, electronic jamming shared immediately, avoided automatically? Every three minutes, a mobility aircraft takes off somewhere on the planet. Platforms are nodes in a network,” Goldfein reportedly said, adding that the Air Force was planning a series of tests in the Nevada desert to determine “what happens when we actually connect into this resilient and agile network.”
To their credit, perhaps, neither Goldfein nor Richardson actually brought up Skynet from the Terminator movies in making their latest pitches for a globally interconnected surveillance and killing apparatus. “Military leaders hate comparisons between their own tech projects and anything from the Terminator franchise,” Tucker writes. One might be forgiven for assuming otherwise, however, given that officials such as Gen. Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly made such comparisons himself.
As is so often the case in many areas of the U.S. federal government, but particularly at the Pentagon, where money flows freely with few strings attached, those in positions of power appear to be pursuing this latest plan because they can, but not necessarily because they can accurately anticipate whether it will work out well in the long run.
“The effort to understand exactly how well all of these moving parts will co-ordinate has only barely begun,” Tucker notes. “But it is the direction that the United States military is moving with both determination and speed.”