The New Ways of War by Matthew Oldham
In 2011, the United States assassinated one of the top leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). This man was the alleged mastermind behind the 2009 Underwear Bomber, who attempted to blow up an airliner over Detroit, as well as edited articles like, “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen with Your Mom” for Al-Qaeda jihadists. Anwar al-Awlaki was heavily involved in the planning and direction for AQAP external operations. Two issues quickly arose with the assassination of al-Awlaki. One, he was a U.S. citizen and former imam in Virginia. Two, he was killed with hellfire missiles launched from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The rise of the drone had officially begun. Reports began flooding news sources and media depicting the United States patrolling the skies of the Middle East and parts of Africa with a new, lethal ally, the armed MQ-9 Reaper (manufactured by General Atomics). Drones have been used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for over a decade, but these “targeted strikes” quickly became the favorite tool for U.S. Counterterrorism policy.
Fast forward to 2010, Iran’s clandestine nuclear program had become more efficient and was bringing the state closer and closer to a nuclear weapon. Without warning a large amount of centrifuges (estimates place them between 1,000 and 5,000) stopped working, setting the program back for at least a year and a half. Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium to a weapons-grade material by increasing the amount or uranium-235, which is the major component of a nuclear weapon. The malfunction was linked back to the computer systems that operated the centrifuges, an apparent cyber-attack that crippled the Iranian nuclear program. Operation Olympic Games, as it would become know, was an (alleged) U.S.-Israeli cyber-weapon that used a two-pronged attack to attack rotor speed and pressure systems to break the centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear facility.
Three years later, an entrepreneur from Texas, Cody Wilson, designed and successfully fired the first plastic firearm. The gun consisted of 15 parts manufactured from a 3D Printer, the Stratasys Dimension SST, with a nail used for the firing pin, the only non-plastic part. The one-shot pistol, known as “the Liberator,” successfully fired a .380 caliber round, and in effect, became the poster-child of Defense Distributed, a “non-profit digital publisher and 3D R&D firm” started by Mr. Cody in Austin, Texas. The first lethal weapon printed by a 3D computer was officially operational. As one could imagine, this set off alarms all over the country. Questions about metal detectors in secured buildings, airports, and the like flew from all angles. The advancement of the technology to eventual military weapons was another question that arose. 3D printing opened up a realm of possibilities.
The three stories above seem very different. Read between the lines, connect the dots, or just read the title of this article, and it becomes readily apparent that the three are more than just innovative technologies that are revolutionizing the growing, globalized world. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), computers, and 3D printing are the new ways of war. It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie from the 1980s (see Terminator), but these new tools offer distinct advantages for future military prowess. Drones, decrease the number of troops that need to be deployed into a zone of hostility and allow for persistent surveillance of an area from altitudes of up to 50,000 feet. Cyber-weapons could be used to target economic centers, power grids, or critical infrastructure like air traffic control, transportations, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear or natural gas facilities. 3D printers have the ability to provide essential components to weaponry with very few materials. One could envision a terrorist using blueprints obtained on the internet to create components used in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) or a rogue state using one to create a missile component to carry a nuclear warhead. Reports of 3D printers being used to create drone components, intertwine the two systems. BAE Systems, a large defense firm, reported that fully operation 3D printed drones will be readily available by 2040. While there will be advantages and disadvantages to these new weapons and technologies, it will be pertinent to U.S. national security and industry to fully understand the capabilities behind them.
Attack of the Drones
Unmanned vehicles are truly a weapon of the future. These machines range from High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drones) to Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) to Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV), like the one used in search of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The robotics industry is also becoming heavily involved with drones, as they discover ways to combine different systems, like aerial and ground drones to make them more sophisticated, advanced, and of course, increase their lethality. They could potentially provide a huge commercial global market for defense and commercial use alike, as well as improve collective defense of U.S. allies. Drones used for ISR could provide quick information regarding trafficking, terrorist movement, and potential military engagement. Their ability to maneuver quickly give them an advantage over satellites, and the non-existent risk to human lives make them more popular than manned aerial surveillance systems. Drones offer a strategic advantage of targeted strikes on individuals associated with terrorism that threaten the United States, as employed by the past two administrations. I mean, just look at a drone. They are scary, like a giant bug with missiles attached to its belly. But, does potential exist for drone usage to lead down a slippery slope?
A recent report by the Stimson Center, outlines several potential problems associated with drone usage. Because of their ability to make the human factor of war negligent, drone usage has the potential to decrease the threshold for conflict. As the risk of human casualties decreases, the chance of war increases. Picture this: The Islamic State begins to drift closer and closer to Turkey’s border. In the dead of the night, a Turkish armed drone strikes their camps, but never invades. Another scenario could involve Russia using (or even giving) a drone to assist with the separatists movement in Ukraine. Scary stuff. Drone strikes by the United States across the Middle East and Africa, has potentially set a precedent for sovereignty erosion. An outside country conducting drone strikes, even with approval of the host country, speaks to the potential for an erosion of these norms because it gives up part of its national control. A final fear is that drones strikes could create more terrorists than it kills. Here is a thought: what if you were sitting in your home with your family, including your dad who had made some sketchy, under-the-table deals with a sketchy, under-the-table group in the past. You pick up the dog, and take him on a walk. Minutes later, your ears are ringing, you are lying on the ground, and black smoke and fire rise from the place your house used to be. Everything you know and love is decimated in a matter of seconds. This reality is indicative of the feeling that many have had in the past decade. While drone strikes can eliminate an enemy, we need to be aware of the adverse effects. The family member that survived, that had everything taken away, could be (and in many cases is) pushed to the open, loving arms of a terrorist group. This “blowback” effect creates the exact situation it set out to destroy. The destabilizing effects of drones are quite concerning, and potentially create more problems than they solve.
“It all Turns to Chaos…”
The most terrifying weapon may not bring about casualties, at all. It does not explode. It does not emit a chemical gas. The most terrifying weapon has the ability to instigate chaos. Cyber-attacks have the potential to bring down financial systems, disrupt critical infrastructure, sabotage transportations systems, and steal billions of dollars, all by someone who is sitting behind a computer from anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, this was best demonstrated by the atrocious Bruce Willis film, Live Free or Die Hard (they should have stopped after Die Hard 2…). As former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” would be unbelievably devastating to the United States. In March 2013, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper acknowledged that cyber-attacks are the biggest threat to national security. As Director Clapper’s Worldwide Threat Assessment indicates, the globalization of technologies and the internet connect the world at rapid pace. As with drones and 3D printing, technology significantly outpaces both national and international policy.
State actors have turned to cyber-espionage as a new means of warfare and intelligence gathering. China is notorious for hacking networks across the globe to gain an industrial advantage over Western countries. Google, the New York Times, and multiple other companies claimed to be the victim of cyber-attacks. Every other week there seems to be another U.S.-Chinese cyber-exchange, even when there is a bilateral working group to develop a collaborative cybersecurity policy between the two countries. Last May, the United States investigated the hacking of six U.S. companies and indicted five members of a Chinese military group, Unit 61398, which resulted in the bilateral working group being suspended. China, however, is not the only country engaged in cyber-warfare. North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, and India are all engaged in some kind of cyber-espionage or cyber-attacks. These attacks can also take place as denial of service (DOS) which involves flooding a system with a high amount of information to overwhelm the network. Another attack is known as a zero-day exploit which attacks a security flaw in a network the first day they are discovered, giving the company or government zero (sorry for the bad pun…) time to react. A large scale DOS attack prevented hundreds from accessing their bank accounts, luckily nothing else was suffered. Chaos proceeds panic, and cyber-based attacks have the potential to create chaos on a large scale.
Printing Tomorrows Weapons
The Liberator pistol revolutionized armed warfare. 15 pieces of plastic constructed together to build a weapon. Fully constructed by a 3D printer, this technology could revolutionize military and law enforcement firearms. Guns made of plastic will be significantly lighter than those made of metal, although metal guns created by 3D printers are being tested as well, by companies like Solid Concepts. As 3D printers becomes not only more sophisticated, but compact and more portable, the problems associated with and potential use by unfavorable actors are likely to increase. In fact, problems have already begun. In Japan, a man was arrested for possessing at least six illegal 3D printed guns (with a few nuts and bolts thrown in). Apparently, designs for rifles, multi-round handguns, and derringers (small 2-shot pistols that could be hid in a sleeve—think Nick-Nack from the James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun) are being developed.
These guns will be cheap, they will be easily concealable, and they will (eventually) be widely available to many across the world. The thought of warlords and criminals being able to build their own weapons in the garage is absolutely terrifying. The proliferation of this technology is growing at an alarming rate. Shapeways, a start-up company that creates objects with 3D printers, has sold over 50,000 products a month, with no signs of slowing down. 3D printers will revolutionize the way products are created and distributed. In addition to companies who are beginning to see the potential sphere they can dip their hands into, another entity took notice: the U.S. Army. Apparently the Armament, Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC) wants to create warheads using 3D printed components insisting that this will enable better design control which could make them more compact, scalable, and deliverable. Why stop at only the warhead though? ARDEC expressed interest in creating a fully capable missile in the future as the technology continues to boom. As mentioned before some drone components have been created using a 3D printer, with plans to have a fully operational drone by 2040. 3D printers could eventually ride alongside soldiers brining the “supply chain to the battlefield.” Industries are already talking about 4D printing technology which would not require assemblage after printing and would be ready for immediate use. In essence these tools could reassemble or reshape themselves. A TED Talk on 4D printing is available here. With the advancement of technology occurring so rapidly, these ideas are simultaneously revolutionary and apocalyptic.
The Non-State Threat
The biggest concern regarding these new technologies does not necessarily come from the state or military threat, but from terrorists groups and militias. Hamas recently employed the use of a drone in its current conflict with Israel, flying it towards the Dimona nuclear facility. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) blew it out of the sky, but this case shows the potential damage that could be caused from terrorist having UAV in their possession. In the past, Hezbollah has used drones against Israel, apparently obtaining them from Iran. This could potentially hit closer to home. In 2012, a graduate student from Massachusetts was arrested for plotting to strap explosives onto drones and fly them into the US Capitol Building and the Pentagon, followed by a ground assault. Likewise, a Moroccan national was arrested by FBI agents in Connecticut for plotting to fly “suicide drones” into a school and federal building. With these small UAVs (or even high-quality remote controlled planes) available over-the-counter at your nearest electronics store, the chances for some type of attack seems to be more probable or at least more conceivable in the future. What if someone decided to strap explosives on a remote controlled plane and fly it into the financial district or Times Square in New York City, all while operating it from Central Park? Drones could be used for a multitude of other things, not just terrorism, such as: smuggling drugs into a prison; transporting goods, weapons, or drugs over national borders; using “underwater drones” to traffic illegal goods.
The same applies in the cyber-realm. According to President Obama, cyberterrorism is the biggest threat facing the United States today. The U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet program found its way into servers across the world, showing the unpredictability and sophistication of complex computer viruses. A program known as “the Mask,” is a sophisticated virus that intended to target natural gas and oil companies across the country. The program was likely developed by a Spanish speaking “hacktivist” group (those who use cybertechnology, espionage, and warfare to promote political agendas) and successfully infected entities and governments in 31 countries and 380 companies worldwide. Its advanced rootkit technology allowed it to hide itself within programs undetected, while the malware part of the program collected information and monitored all communication channels in each network it infected. Once infected everything was up for grabs—documents, encryption keys, network codes, remote access information. Even scarier is that the Mask went undetected since 2007, seven years before it was discovered. Another fear in the cyber-arena is manipulating a system by “spoofing” (hacking into a system to make it look like attacks are taking place). Spoofing involves a group or country manipulating a system by falsifying data. This can be used to make it look like something is happening, even when it is not. Particularly in the nuclear field, a spoof of a nuclear launch by one country could potentially cause a retaliatory nuclear strike. This almost happened in 1995, when scientists launched a meteorological rocket from Norway that Russians interpreted as an American launch. Thanks to the poise of Russian leaders (hard to say that now…) a potential nuclear war was averted. For now, terrorist groups do not seem to have the capability to launch sophisticated cyber-attacks, but “lone-wolfs” and hacktivist groups certainly do. Certainly the potential exists for groups to hack into nuclear facilities, as with Stuxnet, but only the United States and Israel have demonstrated this. Another possibility involves hacking nuclear command and control, but this is highly unlikely and would be nearly impossible for a non-state group to do.
3D printed guns and ammunition would provide a cheap, easy way for terrorist groups and militia groups to wage warfare. The Department of Homeland Security acknowledged this fear in a press release, noting that the sophisticated technology, speed of proliferation, and ease of concealment is very difficult to address and could be problematic in the future. They predict that the proliferation of 3D printed weapons may be “impossible to stop.”As noted earlier, terrorist groups can create components used in IEDs as well. These printers could provide weapons to militias in Africa to continue to wage warfare at a lower price. As blueprints become widely available on-line, cybersecurity will square off cyberterrorism, as groups attempt to gain access to these plans.
America and the Future of War
As should be readily apparent, these three technologies are strongly intertwined and interconnected. Think of the following scenario in the not too distant future: a company designs an idea for a new armed drone that is lighter, more sophisticated, and cheaper than anything seen before. The company uploads their documents to a network server with standard cybersecurity measures. Thousands of miles away a hacktivist group employs a robust virus that successfully infiltrates the system and steals the blueprints to this new drone. The group then sells the designs to a terrorist organization that uses a 3D printer to construct the drone for use in an attack in a major US city. It sounds farfetched right? So many things would have to go perfectly right, but the possibility exists. The role of policy and security not being able to keep up with technological advancement is something we see every day. This scenario would be detrimental to not only U.S. national security, but U.S. industry as well. Can you imagine if this involved American companies and American citizens? There are plenty of extremist groups in our own country that would undoubtedly love to see this scenario play out.
It is undeniable that the United States will need to address this “perfect storm” of technology proliferation in the near future. There are several things that the United States can do. First, make sure that we have the best possible national and international export controls in place in all of these technologies. While I could write an entire novel on all of the export controls that would go into these technologies, the bottom line is that we must ensure that sensitive and dual-use technologies (those used in commercial and military applications) are properly controlled and their end-use is verified. This will not harm industry, but likely improve it because of the strong verification and monitoring that would take place, which would allow trade at a high rate to allied countries. We could trade these technologies with other countries to improve our collective security (you watch my back, I watch yours). Second, we need to lead a multilateral dialogue on how these technologies should be used. This means addressing the U.S. targeted killing program at an international level in order to improve transparency and accountability—reversing the precedent that has been set. This means fixing our cyber-espionage issues with China. This means in-depth research into 3D printing R&D, proliferation, and security implications. An international dialogue would help establish best practices for imports, exports, use in war, and the non-state actor threat. Finally, in the United States there needs to be a cooperative initiative between striking a public and private balance for advanced technologies. The defense industry needs to understand its limitations on transfers and the government needs to understand their limitations on innovation. Best practices from industry and clear guidelines from government need to be addressed. An understanding between these two groups will have a positive impact on economic and security policy by creating and understanding between the two groups, while establishing cooperative measures will help the two groups achieve the same goals.
The United States has a unique opportunity to lead the world in these technologies from both a business and policy angle. Unmanned vehicles, cyber-tools, and 3D printers are some of the most fascinating innovations of our time, with potential to drastically change the world for the better. Everything from global security to global health could potentially benefit from these technologies. We can take the lead in organizing an international consensus on proper usage, establishing global norms, and encouraging cooperation on a global front. At home we can partner with businesses and industry to make the national security and economic market the strongest that it can be.