In 941, the story goes, Prince Igor of Russia lost a fleet of 10,000 ships in a fiery battle with the Byzantine navy. For centuries, Greek Fire protected the Byzantine Empire from invasion by sea and guarded the walls of Constantinople. This hellish substance gushed from bronze tubes, expelled like fluid from a syringe igniting on contact with anything, even water. To this day, the composition of Greek Fire remains a secret, the exact ingredients and their amounts passed from the lips of one emperor to the ear of the next. Mounted in the bows of Byzantium’s ‘dromond’ ships of the line, it demoralized those enemy mariners it did not destroy. No matter what its long-forgotten constituents were, whether saltpeter, liquid petroleum, naphtha or sulphur, the fact remains that it was the highest technology of its time. And like any ultimate weapon, the more enemies knew about it, the less it had to be used.
Today, the impact of advanced technologies and the changing geopolitical environment have produced what is called the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Simply put, the United States and its allies have outstripped the rest of the world in the production of advanced weapons systems.
During the Gulf War, images of ‘smart bombs’ hitting targets with pinpoint accuracy made the West’s military superiority clear beyond dispute.
However, the other aspect of RMA that we are seeing in today’s headlines is the marked increase in the number of possible aggressors. Dissidents and evolutionaries of every stripe now have the ability to join sovereign governments in the possession of advanced weapons: chemical, biological and, most commonly, electronic – through the deployment of computer viruses.
View from Canada
Col. J.R. (Bob) Leitch, Commander, Canadian Forces Information Operations Group, is responsible for protecting Canada and its military against a wide range of high-technology threats.
For many years now, the Canadian Armed Forces has specialized in non-combat operations around the world, restoring and maintaining order. This is a trend that is likely to continue, Leitch said. “The Revolution in Military Affairs says that is the way we are going. We are going to be much more into smaller coalitions, peacekeeping, peace-making type environments. The days of the large army confrontations, although not dead, are certainly not where we will be seeing the majority of conflicts in the future.”
Technology has changed the battlefield – and the way the Canadian Armed Forces conduct operations. “There is certainly a growing need for increased sensor capabilities, for the ability to bring the data back to the decision makers and to provide them as clear a picture as we can in terms of what is going on,” Leitch said.
“It’s the age-old difficulty of the close engagement situation. We often talk of the ‘fog of war’, so understanding a situation, what is called ‘situational awareness’ is a critical element for any commander that is actually involved in the shooting part of it.”
Smarter weapons can cut both ways, giving both friend and aggressor alike the ability to deliver weapons accurately from a greater distance.
“We have certainly seen images on TV of smart weapons executing their tasks,” Leitch said. “What I would call ‘stand-off’ distances, both for launching weapons and in terms of the area that we need to maintain for defensive purposes, are getting larger and larger, so that is imposing technological requirements on all of our operations as we go ahead.”
The “eyes” of the battlefield now extend as far as outer space, where cameras and sensors can capture and transmit information directly to the battlefield.
“We certainly have greater capabilities in both dimensions. We have the ability, through some of the technology and software capabilities, of pushing what I will
call ‘selected information’ down to the frontline individual, so that he now has
more of an ability to say ‘this is my situation’, and he can get it coming from a number of sensors that would not normally be part of his unit or capability.”
As well as satellites, surveillance assets like JSTARS aircraft (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) and Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV’s) collect intelligence from the battlefield. An RPV can enter hostile areas where it would be too risky to send human pilots and gather data. JSTARS radar can see far beyond the horizon.
“All of that information can now provide the officers at the front end a better idea of what they are facing, what is in the environment, the situation they are dealing with,” Leitch said. “And collectively that rolls back up into the higher-level decision makers.
“They then have a better feeling for the way things are going and can direct operations in a more precise manner. Lasers, infrared sensing, the traditional radars and visual are all capabilities that are being pursued, but the reality is the fusion of those capabilities is really what I think is bringing the leap forward.”
As to the capacity of smaller, widely dispersed groups to spread electronic havoc over a wide area, Leitch said, “We are certainly very conscious of the asymmetric threat that is developing in these areas.
It is not the traditional large powers facing each other, and not even nation states, but a full range, from the hacker sitting at home in his basement though small
groups to large groups to terrorist organizations – people that have an ax to grind.”
Today, Leitch said, the emphasis is very much on defensive operations when it comes to protecting Canadian Forces information.
Ironically, fighting digital terrorism means more work for lawyers as well as for software engineers.
“One can find a fair body of law in terms of armed conflicts,” Leitch explained, “but when you start getting off in the whole area of cyberspace, even from the domestic perspective, our bodies of law have not necessarily kept up with hackers and things of that nature.”
The military calls computer viruses “malicious code.”
“There’s a whole range of those things are out there, ” Leitch said. “We work very closely with Canadian government departments and agencies to try and keep track of that, and make sure that we have the necessary defences in place and the necessary skills, and that starts from the very design of the system.
“In terms of what we are doing in the current time, we are growing our capa-bilities in what I would call ‘active defence.’ In the ‘reactive’ mode, we have a Computer Incident Response Team that keeps track of what’s going on. If there’s an incident that occurs in our systems, they go in and provide the diagnostic and the additional skillsets to try and recover the system, restore it and then figure out what’s going on.”
Network Vulnerabilities Assessments find weaknesses in software and the way systems are put together. “We will do an analysis of the system and say, ‘here are the vulnerabilities we found, here is a patch you can put in’ or ‘here is a process we should be following to reduce that vulnerability’. At the same time we have detection
systems on our networks and we are monitoring what is going on. We take the various alarms that are generated and track them down to whether there really is an incident. If there is we bring them to resolution.”
Lines of computer code have joined bullet and bombs in today’s military arsenal.
In 2041, political dissidents in the Middle East seize a heavily armed warship and race to destroy the key terminal that keeps the region’s remaining oil flowing. Even while the first TV pictures from satellites and data from reconnaissance
aircraft are streaming into the Pentagon, a “space bomber” blasts off from the west coast of the United States. Flying faster and farther than any anti-aircraft defence can reach, the bomber reaches the strike zone within minutes. Approaching the ship at more than 100 kilometres altitude, it releases a bomb that moves so fast, it needs no explosive to deliver its deadly force. Like a meteorite with a mind, it crashes into the fast-moving ship and destroys it completely.
Ninety minutes later, mission complete, the space bomber glides in for a landing at its home base.
While Leitch’s command, Canadian Forces Information Operations Group, is responsible for information technology in the military context, the federal government has responded to the growing global threat to computer systems with the Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness (OCIPEP). Announced in February, and incorporating the functions of the former Emergency Preparedness Canada, the new group is tasked with protecting Canada’s critical infrastructure and “assuring the health, safety, security and economic well-being of Canadians,” in the Prime Minister’s words. One measure of OCIPEP’s perceived importance is the assignment of Margaret Purdy to head the group with the rank of Associate Deputy Minister.
While the new group’s mandate covers every kind of threat to the nation’s critical infrastructure, it is clear that the catalyst for its creation was the emergence of ‘malicious’ computer code, capable of wiping out vast chunks of Canada’s economic productivity and threatening the operations of government. What may not be immediately clear is its difference from Leitch’s organization, especially since both operate within the Department of National Defence.
While both groups are dedicated to protecting Canada and Canadians, OCIPEP must develop extensive relationships and partnerships with public and private sector groups and organizations around the world, if it is to do its work properly. In the event of a computer virus outbreak, for example, it means OCIPEP will both share and seek information aimed at counteracting the threat immediately, whereas the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group may have excellent reasons for keeping virus information a closely guarded secret.