‘Democratization’ of Technology Rattles U.S. National Security Agencies

By Sandra I. Erwin
Frank Kendall

The information revolution has reached the far corners of the Earth, and for United States, that has created a whole slew of national security challenges. Agencies like the Defense and State Departments are struggling to keep up with threats such as the proliferation of armed robots and alarmingly sophisticated cyber spying technologies.  

As they seek to cope with the so-called democratization of technology, the soft and hard-power arms of the U.S. government — State, Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development — organized a “defense, diplomacy and development” innovation summit March 2, where government teams pitched ideas for how to solve global security problems.

The Pentagon notably has seen its world turned upside down because advanced technology that used to only exist in the defense industry is now easily obtainable. During a panel discussion at the innovation summit at the State Department, Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall said one of the major consequences of this trend has been a constant barrage of cyber attacks on military information systems.

The prospect of enemy nation states or terrorist groups penetrating U.S. networks has compelled Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to reach out to the commercial industry for help. “We have to partner,” Kendall said. “It’s the reason Secretary Carter set up the DIUx,” shorthand for the defense innovation unit the Pentagon opened near Silicon Valley. Carter announced March 2 during a trip to Silicon Valley he is also forming a “defense innovation advisory board,” a 12-member panel that will offer ideas on how to inject novel thinking and technology into the Pentagon.

“Our opponents around the world have access to commercial technology,” Kendall said, whereas in the Pentagon, innovative products may take years to develop. Despite numerous attempts to accelerate projects, the cycles are still too long, he said.

The Pentagon boosted its cybersecurity budget to $35 billion over the next five years. Kendall said the threats posed by insiders or outsider hackers are virtually impossible to measure. “We don’t know how vulnerable we are in some cases. It is constantly moving,” said Kendall. “We have made great strides in DoD to protect ourselves. But there are lots of unknowns. An adversary can plant a weapon and leave it there indefinitely. That’s the sort of problem we’re dealing with,” he added. “We are in an era where technology is changing very quickly, and staying ahead of the enemy is very difficult.”

The Pentagon’s appeal for help to the private sector has drawn mixed results. “One of the problems I have with industry right now is not a lack of innovation but a lack of resources to bring innovation into the products we use,” Kendall said. Many good ideas are conceived in defense laboratories and never reach fruition. “That is one of my biggest problems today in advancing weapon systems.”
At the State Department, officials worry that a shortage of innovation is hindering international arms control efforts.

“We’ve been stuck in the past when we think about how we monitor our arms control agreements,” said Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller.
The United States continues to depend on Cold War era spy satellites to monitor Russian ballistic missiles. “That’s where our mindset is when it comes to arms control agreements,” she said. “I’m excited about the potential of the information revolution for the future of monitoring arms control treaties.”

There is a need for “ubiquitous sensing,” Gottemoeller said. While the United States has spent decades learning how to perfect surveillance techniques for nuclear missiles, it has little expertise in tracking growing worldwide inventories of autonomous weapons like armed drones. “People are really worried about the emergence of lethal autonomous weapons, some of which are very tiny,” she said. There is advanced technology out there to handle this problem, but it has to be captured and applied, she added. “We can’t just throw up our hands in the arms control world and say we can’t monitor these new problems,” she said. “We have to throw out our old mindset.”

The same applies to the challenge of keeping tabs on cyber warfare activities. “We really have to get the whole international community to agree on normative principles so everybody understands how dangerous cyber threats can be,” Gottemoeller said.

An even more daunting task for State is keeping an eye on the movement of weapons of mass destruction around the world, including nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological devices. “A lot of people think that problem went away with the Cold War,” she said. New technologies are needed in this area, she added. “I think over time we can deal with the diplomatic challenges. But theproblem is how to get people excited again about controlling WMD.”

The State Department has teamed with universities to sponsor technology challenges in WMD verification and monitoring. Two competitions already took place and a third is coming up in April at Stanford University, focused on monitoring global compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. One group of students came up with a software app for inspectors to help them navigate maze-like facilities and figure out where to look for potential violations.

At State’s innovation summit, six groups pitched ideas and the audience selected their favorites.

The Air Force was a big winner. One team of airmen proposed using 3D printing to build infrastructure and facilities in post-disaster areas. Another team from the Air Force Life Cycle ManagementCenter pitched an active shooter protection system for emergency response at embassies and consulates. Groups from other government agencies proposed the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to improve healthcare supply chains and medical tracking in rural, conflict-ridden areas; and exploiting big data technology to strengthen public institutions and good governance commitments. A sustainable microgrid concept was presented to help secures energy transfer between solar, wind and water sources. The last team offered a proposal to use Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency space-based solar power technologies for renewable energy.

After the crowd cast their votes, the Air Force’s active-shooter protection idea got two awards for “feasibility” and “metrics.” The Air Force 3D printing project received the “impact” award. The solar power concept earned the “people's choice” award.

The six finalist teams were selected from nearly 500 employee submissions across the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Photo: State Dept.

Topics: Infotech, Logistics, Manufacturing, Robotics, Science and Engineering Technology, DARPA

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