Internet of Things: The Missing Link in an Off-Set Strategy
Image Credit: U.S. Army photo

Internet of Things: The Missing Link in an Off-Set Strategy


As the Arab Spring, ISIS, and Anonymous all illustrate, the emergence of the Internet has ushered in a new world of communication and collaboration that is challenging the power of the nation-state to control its own citizens and those from outside its borders seeking to influence what occurs inside. Thanks to the Internet, people can share beliefs and ideals, and organize via social networks for good (in the case of crowdsourcing relief in disaster zones) or evil (in the case of ISIS). For the United States and its military, turning these developments to their advantage is critical if American power is to remain preeminent in the Asia-Pacific in coming years.

Governments are working to stay abreast of technological developments but are all too often far behind the private sector. One nascent governmental effort comes from the U.S. Air Force, which is using crowdsourcing via Collaboratory, a tool that allows the public to work with Airmen on real Air Force projects. The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses crowdsourcing to improve efficiency in handling disasters. In fact, it has an app that allows people to take photos of disasters and display them on a public map for others to view. The State Department is also making an effort, sending automated safety warnings and alerts to Americans traveling abroad via social media. The Department of Defense (DoD) also employs social media and other internet and cyber-tools to accomplish its own missions, such as its All Partners Access Network.

Despite these efforts, governmental organizations rarely match the collaboration that goes into organizing a flash mob. In warfare, arguably the most organizationally daunting of human endeavors, DoD was enormously successful at delivering firepower in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, it has done so only at great expense. Insurgents and terrorists have not been successful at defeating the U.S. military on the battlefield, yet they were and remain successful in delivering their own firepower in a much more cost effective manner. In addition, they appear to be winning the war of ideas, as demonstrated by ISIS’s success in recruiting fighters from around the world, including the United States. Why then has the United States not learned from its adversaries and turned to such web and cyber-based approaches?

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How the Military Operates

The Air Force led the nation in developing computer networking principles that eventually led to the Internet. In the 1950s, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system connected geographically dispersed computers and radar sensors to NORAD to produce a unified picture. This research led to additional DoD funding for packet-switching networks which eventually evolved into ARPANET, which preceded the global Internet. As the Internet expanded well beyond its roots, becoming a worldwide phenomenon, global connectivity became possible and cross-domain collaboration became easy and inexpensive. Yet, during this time, DoD research and collaboration was stove-piped between platforms and organizations, with hierarchical structures impeding efficient collaboration. It remains so today.

The Department of Defense has long developed and employed its computer based and cyber-reliant networks, and in some respects has become wedded to them as an organizational tool. Some DoD networks are specifically designed for a new weapons system, and only then is an attempt made to integrate that network into larger regional or global networks. The networks developed for the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightening are cases in point, as they are currently unable to communicate effectively because they have independent networks that are incompatible. In many respects, the purpose of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act (1986) was to force the services to cooperate and communicate more effectively. And while this has largely occurred across the services, at the micro (platform) and macro level, the United States is by no means leading the world in effectively integrating and utilizing computer networks and cyberspace to achieve the nation’s strategic objectives.

America’s Adversaries

The same cannot be said for many of America’s adversaries, most especially including transnational terrorist networks. As one expert notes, the majority of terrorist misuse of the Internet is for logistics purposes (including radicalization, recruitment, financing). The Internet based network is a center of gravity for terrorists. It enables the creation of organizational structures that are constantly adapting to American attacks. Since these virtual networks enable the synergy of physical organizations, rather than being stove-piped, command and control is accomplished in the cloud through cross-functional teams, and is mission dependent — with a close focus on objectives. Once the mission is complete the virtual network is dismantled and a new network forms for the next task.

Social networks by their design are virtual, and thus can be created and destroyed on-the-fly. This allows a warfighting unit to become much more efficient, flexible, and resilient. It creates synergies in action that are only now possible in those instances when soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen have similar communications equipment that allow them to collaborate to find creative solutions in resource constrained environments to survive and eliminate the adversary. DoD networks, being physical in nature, require rewiring buildings, or creating new physical wired or wireless connections that allow disparate units to collaborate.

Should the United States find itself in a conflict with an advanced adversary in the future, the ability to rapidly adapt to this style of “informationized” warfare, as the People’s Liberation Army has termed it, will prove critical to America’s battlefield success. Networks bring the power of the cloud to individual warriors, allowing for collaboration across domains on a global scale. During the recent war against Georgia, for example, Russian hackers instigated a front in cyberspace the night before conventional forces began their operations. Imagine the combination of simultaneous cyber and air attacks. The combined effects could be sequenced in time and space through collaboration in private chat rooms.

In the past, the United States has faced adversarial states and violent non-state actors (VNSA) organized in relatively hierarchical vertical structures. Today the evolution of information and communication technologies (ICT), and the intensification of globalization, provides U.S. adversaries with the opportunity to organize themselves as horizontal networks with decentralized leadership. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt conceptualize this in The Advent of Netwar and their subsequent research.  While various manifestations of netwar exist, its underlying pattern is described as:

An emerging mode of conflict and crime at societal levels, involving measures short of traditional war, in which the protagonists use network forms of organizations and related doctrines strategies and technologies attuned to the information age.  These protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed small groups who communicate, coordinate, and conduct their campaigns in an internetted manner, without a precise central command.

Over the past decade, VNSAs, including terrorists groups such as Al-Qaida, have evolved into netwar actors. Nation-states, such as Russia and China, also appear to be organizing their information warfare abilities along this paradigm, thereby blurring the line between nation-state and non-state actors. As Dawn S. Onley and Patience Wait have argued, “…a big part of the [Chinese] strategy is the PLA’s civilian units — IT engineers drawn from universities, institutes and corporations.” Similarly, as early as 2008, O. Sami Saydjari, a former National Security Agency executive, was quoted by Businessweek as saying that China’s PLA had “tens of thousands” of trainees launching attacks on U.S. computer networks. These trainees might not be officially acting on behalf of the Chinese government, allowing the PLA to plausibly deny its involvement in any attack.

Examples of Chinese incursions in cyberspace include the Titan Rain attacks occurring from 2003 to 2006 and the more recent 2006-2008 Byzantine Foothold incidents. In the latter attacks, “thousands of highly customized e-mails” were sent to U.S. government workers and defense contracting executives, according to the Businessweek article cited above. These e-mails differed from ordinary spam in that they were crafted to deceive the recipients into thinking it was a legitimate e-mail with an official request from another employee on behalf of a government agency. This indicates the perpetrators’ intricate knowledge of U.S. government bureaucracy and interaction between government employees. Upon clicking on the e-mail, the recipient inadvertently activated malicious software which began to spread throughout the government computer network, sending information back to servers in China. Although there is no direct link between the PLA’s civilian units and the Byzantine Foothold attacks, the abundance of people trained in such units and the fact that information was sent from U.S. government computer networks to servers in China indicate that the Chinese military or government may have benefited through ad hoc collaboration with the perpetrators, even if they did not directly order them.


This gives rise to a central question; how does the United States harness the power of collaboration regularly employed by both state and non-state actors and make it a part of our military DNA? One answer might be the emergent Joint Information Environment (JIE) currently being designed, and destined to be deployed in 2018. The JIE is specifically designed to merge our service networks into one, providing widespread access and information to American warfighters in what might be described as DOD’s version of the “Internet of things.” Getting to this end-state, however, remains a challenge. As the JIE is being deployed, policymakers must remain cognizant of specific challenges inherent in any technological change within large organizations.

More likely though, the JIE will fail to live up to its lofty promise. Rather, it will be overburdened with security protocols. Wired and wireless networks of marginal utility will continue to bind U.S forces, while malevolent actors continue to harness the tools of globalization to spread violence and destruction.

A better method would be to discard the remnants of old thinking and embrace the cloud. For example, the U.S. should use the many cheap handheld devices currently proliferating on our city streets as the radios of the future. Instead of organizing our forces with old PC based thinking, the U.S. military should build resilient wireless networks based on current cellular technology wherever we fight. This would include developing the skills necessary to build networks so fast that an enemy cannot take them down. Surely the cost will be much less than trying to build unbreakable networks.

When the network is no longer the limiting factor, U.S. forces will be ready for informationized warfare: cyber-empowered soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, armed with information from data crunching cloud farms that recognize patterns to discern the enemy’s actions — similar to what Amazon does today in predicting what you will buy next. The network and cloud based computing will feed the almost pre-cognitive actions of the informationized warriors. The resilient and ever-present networks will extend the reach of these warriors not just through vehicles that ply the skies, but also the land, sea, and undersea. Developing a warfighter’s Internet of things is the next step in the revolution of military affairs.

This will be a challenge for areas of the world like the Asia-Pacific. Given the tyranny of distance that is ever-present in the region, it is almost impossible to do command and control with the fidelity sometimes obtained in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. This is because a ubiquitous cyberspace does not currently exist. Nor do current communication systems have the range required to cover the Pacific theater. Thus, building the network is not just mission enabling, but instead must become the main focus of the mission. Each land, sea, air and space based asset may function as sensor and/or shooter, but more importantly will extend the coverage footprint. Survivable assets will venture toward the mission objective, all the while stretching the network along their route of travel. In the initial stages of a conflict, shooters will proceed towards coverage areas to get into the network. Eventually the area under coverage will extend throughout the operational area. Obviously, a global footprint would be desired for an expeditionary force, but this may be beyond the capability of current networking technology.

There is no doubt that the Pentagon has invested significant manpower into finding a solution posed to China’s anti-access/aerial denial (A2/AD) challenge. Unfortunately, the Defense Information Systems Agency’s role in managing the technical and security aspects of the JIE may ultimately provide a less-than informationized future force. As suggested, the answer to this challenge is the creation of a warfighter’s cloud that essentially creates the U.S. military’s version of an Internet of things, as the JIE end state envisions. This cloud could be built by extending wireless networks of all shapes and sizes over the widest areas possible. Utilizing best practices from industry will allow for the building of this defense Internet of things over vast areas.

In developed countries like the United States, a widespread cyber-network already exists. The Internet of things currently developing for commercial use allows for greater efficiency and collaboration. While such an idea may move well beyond the traditional expectation of warfighters, it is time to throw the box away that constrains thinking. As the number of uniformed servicemen and women declines and the number of aircraft follow a similar path, it will prove imperative that each warfighter and weapon system is employed in the most efficient manner possible. Achieving this end will depend on information — the very information a warfighter’s Internet of things will provide. The guiding principle for the new future may best be captured by a marketing slogan put out by Verizon several years ago, “Can you hear me now?”

Col. Robert S. Spalding III, PhD, B-2 pilot and former military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Dr. Adam Lowther is a Research Professor at the Air Force Research Institute.

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