WASHINGTON: The Army’s new Rapid Capabilities Office is focused like a laser on Russian threats to Army networks: both cyber attack (hacking) and electronic warfare (jamming), in particular against the GPS signal on which US forces rely.
I’ve written before that a $100 million boost to electronic warfare might be an early priority for the new RCO, whose charter is to speed new equipment into service over a one to five-year time-frame, and whose agenda is personally set by Army Secretary Eric Fanning and the Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley. What I did not realize until I sat down with Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, the RCO operations director, was how thoroughly EW, cyber, and GPS — three closely related fields — dominate that agenda.
Indeed, they dominate it to the exclusion of other high-profile Army projects. Air defense against small drones? “That’s not being run by our office, but we’re certainly watching the progress of that,” Piatt told me. The anti-ship variant of the ATACMS artillery missile? We’re “not in charge of that one, (but) certainly a supporting effort.”
Likewise, I hadn’t realized how closely the RCO was focused on Russia, as opposed to, say, China, North Korea, Iran, or the Islamic State. While Gen. Milley has explicitly said Russia is the most dangerous of the big five threats, it’s a fraught question whether that focus will survive the rise of Donald Trump. The President-Elect has expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin and appointed a National Security Advisor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who says we should collaborate with Russia against the Islamic State, which they see as the real No. 1 threat.
“What poses the most immediate threat?” said Piatt, who served as the deputy commander of Army forces in Europe. “We saw that from Ukraine and Crimea, we saw the Russian capabilities,” which in turn informed the RCO’s focus: “mainly electronic warfare; Position, Navigation & Timing; and cyber.”
While Ukraine is the most glaring example of the danger, “Those dilemmas can be seen in any theater,” Piatt acknowledged. But focus on one threat, instead of “trying to solve the entire Army at one time,” lets the Rapid Capabilities Office get something into service as soon as possible, without waiting on official programs of record which, among other things, won’t get the Army a new offensive jammer until 2023. Once a solution has been prototyped, fielded on a small scale, and shown to work, he said, “then we can inform a fielding solution for the entire Army.”
Focus is crucial because failure to focus, to triage, to prioritize has been the bane of Army acquisitions, Piatt argued. “We don’t have a real problem with the practice of acquisition; we’ll build anything you want and we’ll do it quite well,” Piatt had said at the Center for Strategic & International Studies last month. “What we don’t have is a very good process that decides where that prioritization should be.”
“This is the first time I’ve been in the acquisition side of the Army,” Piatt told me. “What i quickly learned by going around to the different labs and different PEOs (Program Executive Officers) and the PMs (Program Managers) is, these guys are really good… What they were missing, in my view, was sometimes that strategic focus.”
As for the Army headquarters in the Pentagon, Piatt continued, “what we weren’t doing well enough in the building, at the Army senior leadership, was setting those priorities against a known modernization strategy (and) what the global demand forced us to prepare for.”
If you want to focus on one set of threats in one part of the world, then Russian cyber/EW is a pretty good choice. While China has a larger economy and nearly as good technology, it’s been significantly less aggressive. Building artificial islands and declaring air defense zones in other people’s territory is pretty bad, but it’s a lot less bad than invading your neighbors and annexing their land. (Again, a Trump administration may disagree). Besides, the Army plays a supporting role in the watery vastness of the Pacific, but a leading one on the continent of Europe.
Once you’ve focused on Russia, you’ll find it presents many problems for the US Army, from its missile-deflecting main battle tanks to cluster munitions to tactical nuclear weapons. But the greatest threats lie in cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. Russia’s hacker corps brought Estonia to a standstill in 2007 and threatened this year’s US elections; they make the headlines less often than their Chinese counterparts simply because they rarely get caught. Russia’s electronic warfare corps didn’t disband after the Cold War — as the US Army’s did — and can by turns paralyze Ukrainian military communications and triangulate their sources for artillery bombardment.
So what’s the single worst thing Russian cyber and EW can do? Both of them can go after the Global Positioning System. (So can anti-satellite weapons, but it’s easier to jam the signal or hack the software than to shoot down the satellites). Without GPS, US troops don’t know precisely where they are, and most precision weapons go blind. Without GPS, modern radios and communications networks don’t know precisely what time it is, so senders and receivers go out of synch, potentially rendering them deaf and dumb. No wonder, then, that the military is looking intently for other ways to get what it called Position, Navigation & Timing (PNT).
“We built a network that allowed us to maneuver and have good operational awareness,” said Piatt. “Now this network may become a vulnerability in itself.” More than just defend against cyber/EW attack, he added, the Army needs to learn to take the battle to the enemy in the cyber and electromagnetic domains just as it does on land. The ultimate goal is what evolving Army doctrine calls Multi-Domain Battle, with simultaneous and mutually supporting actions on land, at sea, and in the air, space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic spectrum.
“As we see adversaries establish Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems of defense, it’s going to require us to be able to maneuver — do ground maneuver — through contested domains to defeat those systems,” Piatt said, “so our adversaries know they… can’t attack or impose their will on smaller allies that may rest within that (zone) of anti-access.”
That sounds a lot like the Baltic states, whose entire territory and airspace is in range of missile batteries on Russia soil, I said.
“It does,” Piatt said.
“America has a great track record of losing the first battle,” Piatt emphasized. “We won’t have the luxury of time if an adversary escalates quickly, deescalates, and freezes that conflict to achieve a strategic (fait accompli). We’ve got to be able to win that first battle, because if we can’t, we certainly won’t deter it.”