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Tactical Cyber Weapons For Future French Battlefield Ops?

Posted by Theresa Hitchens on

French government photo

Florence Parly, French Minister For Armed Forces, had announced a new offensive cyber strategy in January

PARIS AIR SHOW: Tactical commanders should have the power to unleash cyber attacks on an enemy in exactly the same way they can currently unleash an artillery barrage, says retired French Army Lt. Gen. Alain Bouquin.

“Cyber from a military point of view is much more than [data] security, it is much more than that. Its resilience … being able to carry on the mission when everything is going wrong,” he said. “But we must also be able to have actions on the information systems of the enemy in front of us. So it’s not only protection — resilience — it’s also active cyber capabilities aiming at the enemy systems.”

When I asked him to clarify whether he meant that he was speaking of offensive cyber attacks, he emphatically answered: “Yes, I am.”

Bouquin, vice president and corporate defense advisor on land forces at French electronics giant Thales, spoke with reporters here today about the future of land warfare, the direction of the French military, and Thales’ expected role in helping achieve French Army goals.

While strongly arguing that cyber offense and defense both must form a pillar of future operations, he admitted that the French military has yet to reach consensus on conducting cyber warfare.

“I think we’ve not reached yet the full doctrine concepts about this capability,” he explained. “What is happening today in France is that if I detect an enemy command post, I am allowed to fire with artillery, but I’m not allowed to have a virus introduced in his information system. I think in the future we will need to be able to have … a kind of a tactical cyber offensive ability.”

He stressed that the issue needs to be discussed not only in France, but in other Western countries. “It needs to be discussed with the people in charge of doctrine, as it is [seen as] something very touchy. And very often in the Occidental armies and forces, we have thought it should be reserved to ‘very special units’ because it is a ‘special’ capability. I think in the future it will not remain a ‘special’ capability.”

French Defense Minister Florence Parley in January of this year established its first doctrine on cyber warfare that embraced offensive cyber operations, having stood up a Cyber Defense Command in 2017. As Arthur P.B. Laudrain wrote in a detailed legal analysis on the Lawfare blog back in February, the new doctrine envisions cyber attacks as “an integral part of or substitute for conventional military operations.”

Cyber operations are only one part of what  Bouquin says Thales sees as both a strategy and a path for developing a hyper-connected, highly automated battlefield — what he called “collaborative combat” — that will not necessarily alter what is done on the battlefield but how fast and efficient it is done.

“Today, collaboration in combat is the situational analysis, discussion and issuing of orders,” he said. “With the introduction of technology, we can provide opportunities to automate some processes — to queue up decisions. The new challenge for the military will be to defense where the handover is between the autonomy and artificial intelligence and the human or the final decision maker.” He said that the aim of Thales is to help move this process of automation.

The first step toward this future is to finish ongoing efforts to develop “extended connectivity” to create a sort of “IoT (Internet of Things) of the battlefield” where everything — soldiers, platforms, their communications equipment, their weapons and their leaders — is connected.

The second technological step is the integration of big data analytics into operations. “We will have so many data processed and exchanged on the battlefield, that we can no longer rely on only the human evaluation of the situation,” Bouquin explained. “We need tools to exploit to provide the warriors with [situational awareness’]”

The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) would be the third step — moving from automating processes to giving AI systems a number of decision-making functions. The fourth is cyber operations.

Bouquin was quick, however, to explain that he was not  talking about the use of so-called ‘killer robots.’ the power over life and death.

“We have to decide what is acceptable, and what is not acceptable,” he said. With regard to AI, he said that France would accept AI undertaking logistics operations, automated communications and probably sensor operations. “Weapons? No. No way in France. For Paris, it’s obvious: we cannot accept that the decision to kill anybody is taken by a machine or software.”

Thales is working on solutions to all of these four requirements, Bouquin said. One of the big programs underway is the new French Army Scorpion project, designed to create integration between light tanks and armored vehicles. Thales is the contractor developing the system that will integrate sensors, the computer system and communications among the various platforms.

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