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Intelligent Machines

The Soldier as Geek

The Next World War: Computers Are the Weapons and the Front Line is Everywhere

James adams is one of novelist Tom Clancy’s favorite defense journalists. This may be because Clancy, who has had little difficulty (even after the Soviet Union’s demise) conjuring up high-tech goons out to destroy democracy, sees a kindred spirit in Adams, who warns of so many unfamiliar dangers in today’s destabilized world that the old era of Mutually Assured Destruction begins to feel comfortingly predictable. The troubling thing about the affinity between Adams and Clancy is that Adams’ latest book isn’t fictional, and after reading it, Clancy’s books don’t seem so overblown.

Adams warns that while the rest of us revel in Tomb Raider, Palm Pilots, the Web, and other fruits of the Information Revolution, Pentagon planners and terrorist hackers are applying the power of the microchip to the age-old wartime practices of decryption, deception, disinformation and disruption. The “smart bombs” showcased during the Gulf War were only a taste of things to come, explains Adams, whose network of sources in the defense world gave him unusual access to military weapons labs and information warfare centers. Adams tells of efforts by the U.S. military and other militaries to equip infantrymen with computerized laser sights/range finders/video displays and insect-size flying reconnaissance cameras; to unify an entire naval fleet’s fire control computers to form a so-called “ring of fire”; to build acoustic weapons that knock a person down with a baseball-size pulse of sound; and to plant Trojan horses such as eavesdropping equipment, logic bombs and viruses in electronic equipment built for export to rival nations, giving the exporter the ability to intercept intelligence or even cripple an enemy’s communications networks in a moment of international crisis.

As formidable as these new weapons sound, Adams stresses that America’s lead in the microelectronics industry is a weakness as much as a strength; as the most computerized nation on the planet, the United States is also the most vulnerable to information attack. If a 21-year-old hacker in Buenos Aires can wander at will through U.S. Navy and NASA computer systems (as Julio Csar Ardita did in 1995), Adams asks, how much farther could a determined cyberwarrior from a hostile nation or a well-financed terrorist group penetrate?

This story is part of our November/December 1998 Issue
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Not all defense officials are dismayed by such questions. The emergence of a new kind of warfare at just the time that the military is absorbing big budget cuts has been “the equivalent of a lifesaver thrown to a drowning man,” as Adams puts it. The Army, Navy and Air Force are all busily expanding their offensive information warfare efforts, Adams says, and the “soldier of the future” will likely be a computer geek. Yet for all the salivating, Adams’ sources have precious few ideas about how to defend against information assaults. Can a nation’s computer systems be both open and secure, both ubiquitous and fail-safe? The next war may tell.

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