Computers alter warfare forever

August 23, 1998|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,SUN STAFF

"The Next World War: Computers Are the Weapons and the Front Line Is Everywhere," by James Adams. Simon and Schuster. 344 pages. $25. About this time last year, a team of hired hackers declared war on the electronic infrastructure of the United States.

They won.

The cyber-intruders, engaged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, penetrated computers that controlled military logistics, air traffic control centers, power grids, oil refineries and other critical systems. Had they been intent on mischief, they could have created round-the-clock disasters. Instead, the top-secret "Eligible Receiver" team sent quiet shock waves rippling through government agencies with its successful simulation of an electronic Pearl Harbor.

Despite this warning and many others, the government still hasn't come to grips with the age of information warfare, or so says James Adams in "The Next World War."

Adams, chief executive officer of United Press International and a veteran writer on military and intelligence affairs, argues in this rambling but well-researched volume that the next war will be decided largely by computers - or more precisely, by those who know how to attack enemy systems and defend their own.

Although Adams is fond of hyperbole (in March he declared that newspapers are dead, then leveled a public blast at the "tired hacks" who work for his own company), he does a workmanlike job of documenting the profound changes that microchips have wrought on our armed forces - and our vulnerability to information warfare waged by a hostile power, dedicated terrorists, or even a couple of teenagers with a modem.

Unfortunately, there's enough subject matter here for a couple of books, and Adams makes only a half-hearted attempt to weave his threads into a coherent tapestry. But several themes recur.

First, from a military and political perspective, Adams argues that the legacy of Vietnam is a public unwilling to support a protracted war that produces high American casualties or a significant suffering by an enemy's civilian population. Meanwhile, he says, instantaneous television broadcasts - from both sides of the battle lines - leave military commanders without leeway to make mistakes. As a result, American commanders are planning for a new kind of warfare - one that destroys the enemy's ability to wage war with minimal exposure of American forces.

On a grand scale, that means disrupting a hostile power's computer systems, transportation, communications, power supplies and air defenses - not only with bombs and bullets, but also with electronic weapons that range from non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse bombs to computer viruses. On the battlefield, it means an entirely new set of weapons ranging from high-tech drone aircraft that gather intelligence to computer-enhanced Army uniforms and rifles that can give commanders critical information about the state and location of their troops.

As is so often the case, Adams says, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and civilian intelligence agencies are pursuing separate and often incompatible information warfare strategies. In fact, he says, these efforts are so secret and compartmented that no one really knows everything that's going on.

As a result, one American infowar service could induce an enemy's communications system to report false troop dispositions that another American agency would intercept and report to American commanders as accurate. In other words, we'd believe our own lies.

Likewise, Adams argues that military and civilian agencies still have no coherent strategy for preventing assaults on computer systems that were designed from the outset to enable the free flow of information. In fact, the Eligible Receiver team was able to inflict its theoretical damage using only information and tools that were freely available on the Internet. An enemy willing to engage in break-ins, subversion, theft and other illegal activities would have a much easier time.

Adams doesn't offer much in the way of solutions to the problem - but there's plenty of detail to chew on here. This issue won't go away, and "The Next World War" is a good way to get acquainted with it.

Mike Himowitz is The Sun's electronic news editor. During his 24-year career, he has been at times a reporter, rewrite man, state house bureau chief, Washington correspondent, system editor, state editor and Baltimore County bureau chief. A self-taught computer programmer, he currently produces The Sun's Plugged In section and directs its computer-assisted reporting efforts.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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