Category Archives: Future Tech

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Drones in Africa: A Leap Ahead for Maritime Security

By CAPT Chris Rawley and LCDR Cedric Patmon

Technology adoption moves in fits and starts. The developing world cannot be forced into accepting new technology, but it can be enabled, and often in a surprising manner. A recent example is the leap in communications technology. During the 20th Century most of the world developed a robust network of terrestrial-based telecommunications based primarily on the ubiquitous land-line telephone system. Without this infrastructure in place Sub-Saharan African countries were largely left behind at the start of the information revolution. But at the turn of the new century something interesting happened. Rather than retroactively building an archaic phone system Africans embraced mobile phone technology. From 1999 through 2004 the number of mobile subscribers in Africa eclipsed those of other continents, increasing at a rate of 58 percent annually. Asia, the second fastest area of saturation, grew at only 34 percent during that time. The explosive growth of mobile phones and more recently smart phones across practically every African city and village has liberated economies and facilitated the free flow of information. This technology also enabled Africans to lead the world in mobile money payment solutions, bypassing increasingly obsolete banking systems.

Today, Africans have another opportunity to leap ahead in technology to protect one of their most important areas of commerce – their coastal seas. Africa’s maritime economy is absolutely critical to the continent’s growth and prosperity during the next few decades. On the edge of the Eastern Atlantic the Gulf of Guinea is bordered by eight West African nations, and is an extremely important economic driver. More than 450 million Africans derive commercial benefit from this body of water. The region contains 50.4 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves and has produced up to 5.5 million barrels of oil per day. Additionally, over 90 percent of foreign imports and exports cross the Gulf of Guinea making it the region’s key connector to the global economy.

Favorable demographics and industrious populations put coastal Africans in a position to prosper, but an increase in illegal fishing activities and piracy since the early 2000s has severely impeded this potential. The growth in acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea from 2000 onward points to the challenges faced by West African states.

According to Quartz Africa, illegal fishing activities in the region have a negative economic impact of $2-3 billion annually. “Fish stocks are not restricted to national boundaries, and that is why the solutions to end the overfishing of West Africa’s waters can only come from joint efforts between the countries of the region,” Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace’s Africa Oceans campaigner, said in a statement. Marine pollution, human, and narcotics trafficking are also major issues facing the region.

Due to the economic impact of illicit activities in and around West Africa a Summit of the Gulf of Guinea heads of state and government was held in 2013 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. This resulted in the adoption of the Yaoundé Declaration on Gulf of Guinea Security. Two key resolutions contained in the Declaration were the creation of an inter-regional Coordination Centre on Maritime Safety and Security for Central and West Africa, headquartered in Yaoundé, and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct Concerning the Prevention and Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illegal Maritime Activities in West and Central Africa. Adoption of this agreement has laid the foundation for critical information sharing and resource cooperation that can be used to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other illicit activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

Though the Code of Conduct established an architecture for maritime security in the region, without enforcement on the water, diplomatic efforts are largely impotent. Key to enforcement is the ability to identify, track, and prosecute nefarious actors on the high seas and in coastal areas. So-called maritime domain awareness is gradually improving in the area, but current options for maritime surveillance are limited. The largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels capable of multi-day over-the-horizon operations, but even these vessels have limited enforcement capacity. Patrol vessels face maintenance issues and fuel scarcity. Shore-based radar systems at best reach out 30 or 40 nautical miles, but are plagued by power and maintenance issues. Moreover, a shore-based radar, even with signals correlated from vessels transmitting on the Automatic Identification System, only provides knowledge that a contact is afloat, not necessarily any evidence to illicit actions.

Latin American navies face similar maritime challenges to those in Africa and have learned that airborne surveillance is simply the best way to locate, track, identify, and classify surface maritime targets involved in illicit or illegal activity. A retired senior naval officer from the region related a study in the Caribbean narcotics transit zone to one of the authors that compared different surveillance mechanisms for the 11,000 square nautical mile area. The probability of detecting a surface target within six hours rose from only five percent with a surface asset to 95 percent when maritime patrol aircraft were included. Only a handful of coastal African countries have fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters, but these aircraft face similar issues to surface assets with fuel costs and mechanical readiness resulting in limited flight time on station.

Drone Solutions to African Maritime Insecurity

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are known colloquially, provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance maritime security in a relatively inexpensive manner, similar to the ways mobile telephony revolutionized communications on the continent. Similar to the evolution of computing power outlined by Moore’s law tactical UAS are rapidly growing in capabilities while decreasing in cost. Improvements in sensors, endurance, and payload are advancing quickly. For any solution, acquisition cost, maintainability, and infrastructure required are key factors to be considered. The cost per flying hour of most UAS is negligible compared to their manned counterparts. Today’s fixed and rotary-wing systems, whether specifically designed for military use or for commercial applications, can be adapted for surveillance in a maritime environment without much additional cost.

A Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft is bungee launched in a midday demonstration flight. (© Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia)

Because each country has unique requirements and budgets no single UAS solution is appropriate. Maritime drones can be based ashore or on coastal patrol vessels. One viable option for countries with limited resources involves services contracted by Western Partners, a model which has already been proven in the region for other applications. Alternatively, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct provides a framework for a possible shared model. This agreement can provide the timely sharing of critical information ascertained by maritime surveillance and reconnaissance systems to aid in the enforcement of the maritime laws and agreements in the region. Contractor-operated drones could be allocated across countries by leadership in the five Zones delineated by the Code. Multinational cooperation on maritime security has already been tested in the annual Obangame Express exercise and during real-world counterpiracy operations. Understanding that not all countries have the investment capability to purchase their own stand-alone systems, consideration could be given to sharing the initial investment costs between countries. The logistics of system placement and asset availability would have to be determined by the participating countries themselves but the benefit of such a program would positively impact the entire region economically, enhance interoperability, and assist in regional stability.

Drones are already being operated across Africa by Africans. Zambia recently purchased Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles for counter-poaching operations. There are also African unmanned systems flying surveillance missions over areas plagued by violent extremists groups. UAS are even being used to transport blood and medical supplies across the continent’s vast rural landscapes. Shifting these assets over water is a natural progression. One concern about using UAS is airspace deconfliction. However, this problem is minimized because there is little to no civil aviation in most parts of Africa. Additionally, most maritime UAS would be flying primarily at low altitudes over water from coastal bases.

Conclusion

The leap-ahead capabilities that unmanned surveillance aircraft could provide to coastal security around Africa are clearly evident. African navies with adequate resources should make acquisition of unmanned air systems a priority. Likewise, western foreign military assistance programs should focus on providing contracted or organic unmanned aircraft capabilities.

Captain Rawley, a surface warfare officer, and Lieutenant Commander Patmon, a naval aviator, are assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet’s Maritime Partnership Program detachment responsible for helping West African countries enhance their maritime security. The opinions in this article are those of the authors alone and do not officially represent the U.S. Navy or any other organization

Featured Image: GULF OF GUINEA (March 26, 2018) A visit board search and seizure team member from the Ghanaian special boat service communicates with his team during a search aboard a target vessel during exercise Obangame Express 2018, March 26. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Theron J. Godbold/Released)

Why It Is Time For a U.S. Cyber Force

By Dave Schroeder and Travis Howard

The proposal to create a U.S. Space Force has cyber professionals wondering about the government’s national security priorities. While spaceborne threats are very real — some of which cannot be suitably described in a public forum — the threats posed in cyberspace have been all too real for over a decade, and include everything from nuisance hacks by nation-states, to the weaponization of social media, to establishing beachheads on our nation’s electric grid, or the internet routers in your own home.

Since 2009, incremental improvements have been made to the nation’s ability to operate in cyberspace during this period. The establishment of U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) — first subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command, and then elevated to a Unified Combatant Command (UCC) — and the formation of the 133 teams that comprise the Cyber Mission Force (CMF) are chief amongst them.

Yet despite all of the money and attention that has been thrown at the “cyber problem” and for all of the increased authorities and appropriations from Congress, the nation’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities suffer from inefficiency and a lack of a unified approach, slow to non-existent progress in even the most basic of cybersecurity efforts, and a short leash that is inconsistent with the agility of actors and adversaries in cyberspace. Our adversaries continue to attack our diplomatic, information, military, economic, and political systems at speeds never before seen.

The discourse surrounding the formation of a dedicated service for space defense has captured the American imagination, and for good reason. Since World War II, America has shown her ingenuity and innovation, and the success of the U.S. Air Force provides a historical model for how a combat-ready, specialized fighting force can be built around a new warfighting domain. However, a force structure has already taken shape within the U.S. military that would logically translate to its own service, and the operational culture it would both allow and cultivate would greatly enhance the effectiveness of national security.

It is past time to form the U.S. Cyber Force (USCF) as a separate branch of the United States Armed Forces.

America’s Position in Cyberspace is Challenged Daily — but it can be Strengthened

It’s no surprise that a wider breadth of adversaries can do more harm to American interests through cyberspace than through space, and for far less cost. In the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War — the cyber “ghosts” of which are still alive and well in 2018 — Bill Woodcock, the research director of the Packet Clearing House observed, “You could fund an entire cyberwarfare campaign for the cost of replacing a tank tread, so you would be foolish not to.”

Deterring and responding to Russian hybrid warfare in cyberspace, countering Chinese cyber theft of U.S. intellectual property, shutting down state and non-state actor attacks, defending American critical infrastructure — including the very machinations of our democracy, such as voting and political discourse and even cyber defense of U.S. space assets are just some of the heavy-lift missions that would occupy a U.S. Cyber Force.

Admiral (retired) Jim Stavridis recently described four ways for the U.S. and allied nations to counter challenges like the weaponization of social media and multifaceted information warfare campaigns on Western democracy: public-private cooperation, better technical defenses, publicly revealing the nature of the attacks (attribution), and debunking information attacks as they happen. A dedicated U.S. Cyber Force, with the proper ways and means to do so, could accomplish all of these things, and be a major stakeholder from day one.

Admiral (ret.) Mike Rogers, former Director, National Security Agency (NSA)/Chief, Central Security Service (CSS) and Commander, USCYBERCOM, in his 2017 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned against prematurely severing the coupling of cyber operations and intelligence that has been the hallmark of any success the U.S. has thus far enjoyed in cyberspace. General Paul Nakasone, the current DIRNSA/CHCSS and Commander, USCYBERCOM, made the same recommendation in August 2018. Despite increased resourcing of USCYBERCOM by both Congress and the Executive Branch, operational authorities in cyberspace are hamstrung by concerns about blending Title 10 military operations with Title 50 intelligence activities, along with negative public perception of the NSA. The relationship between USCYBERCOM and NSA requires a complicated (and classified) explanation, but blending cyber operations with rapid, fused intelligence is vital, and go hand-in-hand — to separate them completely would be to take the leash that already exists around USCYBERCOM’s neck and tie their hands with it as well. Offensive and defensive operations in cyberspace are two sides of the same coin — and intelligence is the alloy between them. Standing up a U.S. Cyber Force would also enable a deliberate re-imagining of this unique symbiosis, and a chance to — very carefully — lay out lines of authority, accountability, and oversight, to both prevent overreach and justifiably earn public trust.

The above challenges could be addressed in part by refining the existing structures and processes, but the real sticking point in USCYBERCOM’s sustainment of fully operational cyber forces lies in how we build forces ready to be employed. Force generation of the CMF through the various armed services’ manning, training, and equipping (MT&E) their own cyber warriors is an inefficient and weak model to sustain a combat ready force in this highly-specialized and fast-moving mission area.

Cyber resources play second-fiddle to service-specific domain resourcing; for example, the Department of the Navy has an existential imperative to resource the maritime domain such as shipbuilding and warplanes, especially during a time of great power competition. The cyber mission is secondary at best, and that’s not the Navy’s fault. It just simply isn’t what the Navy is built or tasked to do. This same reality exists for our other military services. Cyber will always be synergistic and a force multiplier within and across all domains, necessitating the need for the services to retain their existing internal cyber operations efforts, but feeding the joint CMF is ultimately unsustainable: the CMF must sustain itself.

The Cyber Force is Already Taking Shape

USCYBERCOM, NSA, the 133 teams comprising Cyber Mission Force — are approaching full operational capability in 2019 — and the operational and strategic doctrine they have collectively developed can now more easily transition to a separate service construct that more fully realizes their potential within the joint force. There is a strong correlation here with how the U.S. Army Air Force became the U.S. Air Force, with strong support in Congress and the approval of President Truman. The DoD has begun revising civilian leadership and building upon cyber subject matter expertise, as well, with the creation of the Principal Cyber Advisor (PCA) to the Secretary of Defense — a position that Congress not only agreed with but strengthened in the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Such a position, and his or her staff, could transition to a Secretary of the Cyber Force.

The footprint would be small, and room in Washington would need to be carved out for it, but the beginnings are already there. Cyber “culture” — recruiting, retention, and operations — as well as service authorities (blending Title 10 and Title 50 smartly, not the blurry “Title 60” joked about in Beltway intelligence circles) would all benefit from the Cyber Force becoming its own service branch.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of a separate cyber branch of the armed forces is the disruptive innovation that would be allowed to flourish beyond the DoD’s traditional model of incremental improvement and glacial acquisition. The cyber domain, in particular, requires constant reinvention of techniques, tools, and skillsets to stay at the cutting edge. In the early 2000s, operating in a cyber-secure environment was thought to mean a restrictive firewall policy coupled with client-based anti-virus software. In 2018, we are developing human-machine teaming techniques that blend automation and smart notifications to fight and learn at machine speed. Likewise, the traditional acquisition cycle of military equipment, often taking 4-6 years before prototyping, just doesn’t fit in the cyber domain.

In short, the “cyber culture” is an incubator for innovation and disruptive thinking, and there are professionals chomping at the bit for the chance to be a part of a team that comes up with new ideas to break norms. A dedicated acquisition agency for cyber would be an incubator for baked-in cybersecurity controls and techniques across the entire DoD acquisition community. The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) — recently shedding its Experimental “x” — is proving that something as simple as colocation with innovation hubs like California’s Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, and a willingness to openly engage these partners, can deliver innovative outcomes on cyber acquisition and much more. Similarly, the Cyber Force must be free to exist where cyber innovation lives and thrives. 

Creating the USCF has other benefits that would be felt throughout the military. The Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, relieved of the burden of feeding the offensive and national CMF and paying their share of the joint-force cyber bill, can better focus on their core warfighting domains. This doesn’t absolve them of the need for cybersecurity at all levels of acquisition, but a USCF can be an even greater advocate and force-multiplier for DoD cybersecurity efforts. Services can and should retain their service-specific Cyber Protection Teams (CPTs), which could be manned, trained, equipped, and tactically assigned to their service but also maintain ties into the USCF for operations, intelligence, and reachback. Smart policies and a unity of effort can pay big dividends here, as the services would naturally look to such an organization as the resident experts.

Extreme Challenges with Existing Forces

Much has been made of the extensive difficulties faced by our military services for the recruiting and retention of cyber expertise in uniform. Brig. Gen. Joseph McGee, Deputy Commanding General (Operations), Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER), described an example in which a talented cyber prospect “realized he’d make about the same as a first lieutenant as he would in a part-time job at Dell.” Examples like this are repeated over and over from entry-level to senior positions, and everything in between, on issues from pay to culture. In the military, being a cyber expert is like being a fish out of water.

The service cyber and personnel chiefs have made a clear case before the Armed Services Committees of both houses of Congress for the urgent need for flexibility on issues such as rank and career path for cyber experts specifically. Cyber needs were repeatedly cited as the rationale for the need for changes to restrictive military personnel laws. Many of these items were indeed addressed in the Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19) National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), with provisions which may now be implemented by each service in what is hailed as the biggest overhaul to the military personnel system in decades:

  • Allow O-2 to O-6 to serve up to 40 years without promotions, or continue service members in these grades if not selected for promotion at a statutory board
  • Ability for service members to not be considered at promotion boards “with service secretary approval” — for instance, to stay in “hands on keyboard” roles
  • No need to meet 20 years creditable service by age 62 for new accessions (no need for age limit or age waiver above 42 years old for direct commissions)
  • Direct commissions or temporary promotion up to O-6 for critical cyber skills

But even these provisions do not go far enough, and the services are not obligated to implement them. When the challenges of pay, accessions at higher rank, physical fitness, or military standards in other areas come up, invariably some common questions are raised.

A common question is why don’t we focus on using civilians or contractors? In the case of naval officers, why don’t we make them Staff Corps (instead of Restricted Line), like doctors and lawyers who perform specialized functions but need “rank for pay” and/or “rank for status?” What about enlisted specialists versus commissioned officers?

The answer to the first question is easy in that we do use civilians and contractors across the military, extensively. The reason this is a problem is that we also need the expertise in uniform, for the same legal and authorities reasons we don’t use civilians or contractors to drive ships, lead troops, launch missiles, fly planes, and conduct raids.

As for making them Staff Corps officers or equivalent in the other services, the Navy, for instance, has been talking about going the other direction: making officers in the Navy Information Warfare community designators (18XX) unrestricted line, instead of restricted line, like their warfare counterparts, or doing away with the unrestricted line vs. restricted line distinction altogether. This is a matter of protracted debate, but the reality is that some activities, like offensive cyberspace operations (OCO) and electronic attack (EA), are already considered forms of fires under Title 10 right now — thus requiring the requisite presence of commissioned officers responsible and accountable for the employment of these capabilities. The employment of OCO creates military effects for the commander, and may someday be not just a supporting effort, or even a main effort, but the only effort, in a military operation.  

Under the Navy’s Information Warfare Commander Afloat Concept, for the first time the Information Warfare Commander of a Carrier Strike Group, the Navy’s chief mechanism for projecting power, can be a 18XX Officer instead of a URL Officer. If anything, we’re shifting more toward URL, or “URL-like”, and the reality of the information realm as a warfighting domain is only becoming more true as time goes on, if not already true as it stands today.

So what about our enlisted members? They’re doing the work. Right now. And the brightest among them are often leaving for greener pastures. But still for reasons of authorities, we still need commissioned officers who are themselves cyber leaders, subject matter experts, and practitioners.

None of this is to say that direct commissioning of individuals with no prior service as officers up to O-6 is the only solution, or that it would not create new problems as it solves others. But these problems and all of the concerns about culture shock and discord in the ranks can also be solved with a distinct U.S. Cyber Force which accesses, promotes, and creates career paths for its officers as needed to carry out its missions, using the full scope of flexibility and personnel authority now granted in the FY19 NDAA.

Another major challenge is the lack of utilization of our reserve components. Many members of our reserve force have multiple graduate degrees and 10-15 years or more of experience, usually in management and leadership roles, in information technology and cybersecurity. We have individuals in GS/GG-14/15 or equivalent contractor and other positions, who are doing this work, every day, across the Department of Defense (DOD), the Intelligence Community (IC), academia, and industry.

Yet reservists are currently accessed at O-1 (O-2 under a new ARCYBER program), need to spend 3-5 years in training before they are even qualified to mobilize, or for the active components to use in virtually any operational or active duty capacity. And that’s after doing usually a year or more of non-mobilization active duty, for which nearly all employers don’t give differential pay because of existing employment policies, including in federal GS/GG positions.

We have very limited mechanisms and funding sources to even put reservists on active duty at NSA or USCYBERCOM, where our service cyber leadership repeatedly states we need people the most. And in the rare instances we manage to put people on some type of active duty in a cyber role in their area of expertise, it often is not a “mobilization” under the law — which means a person is now an O-2 or O-3, and with that “level” of perceived authority and experience to those around them. And they often just left their civilian job where they are recognized as a leader and expert — and easily make $200k a year.

National Security Operations Center (NSOC) c. 1985 — National Cryptologic Museum

Most people appreciate that you can’t just magically appear as an O-6, and have the same depth, breadth, and subtlety of experience and knowledge as a O-6 with 25 years in uniform. Yet these O-6s, as well as general and flag officers, routinely retire and assume senior leadership positions in all manner of public and private civilian organizations where “they don’t know the culture” — because they’re leaders.

So while a person off the street doesn’t have the same level of understanding of the military culture, it’s incorrect to say they can’t innovate and lead on cyber matters — to include in uniform as a commissioned officer. We’re not so special to imply that you can’t lead people and do the critical work of our nation, in uniform, unless you’ve “put in your time” in a rigid career path. It’s time to change our thinking, and to establish a military service to support the realities of that shift.

Recommendations

The call for a dedicated cyber branch of the U.S. Armed Forces is not new. Admiral (ret.) Jim Stavridis and Mr. David Weinstein argued for it quite passionately in 2014, calling on national leaders to embrace cyber innovation and imploring us to “not wait 20 years to realize it.” Great strides have been made in the four years since that argument was made, and we are closer than ever to realizing this vision. It will take a focused effort by Congress and the president to make this happen, as it did with the U.S. Army Air Forces becoming the U.S. Air Force in 1947. A tall order, perhaps, in today’s political environment, but not impossible, especially given the desire to compromise on issues of national defense and when both Republicans and Democrats alike are seeking wins in this column.

To summarize: the threat is eating our lunch, USCYBERCOM and the CMF are nearly ready to transition to their own service branch, and the benefits of doing so are numerous:

  • Sensible use of resources spent on cyberspace operations
  • An incubator of disruptive and rapid innovation in the cyber domain
  • Improved oversight and accountability by policy and under U.S. Code
  • More efficient and sustainable force generation and talent retention
  • Better alignment of service-specific core competencies across all warfighting domains
  • Synergy with a unified space commander (such as cyber protection of satellite constellations)

The United States House of Representatives recently ordered the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to begin an assessment on DoD cyberspace operations as part of the FY19 NDAA. This study, due to Congress in 2019, should prove enlightening and may become a foundational effort that could be built upon to explore the feasibility of establishing the U.S. Cyber Force as a new branch of the Armed Forces. Congress could order this as soon as FY21, with the Cyber Force fully established by the mid-2020s (blazingly fast by federal government standards, but no faster than the proposed Space Force).

Conclusion

The President has also now relaxed rules around offensive cyberspace operations, perceiving the urgent need to respond more quickly to cyber threats and cyber warfare directed at the United States. We have a great stepping stone in USCYBERCOM, but with no plans to take it to the next step, even a dedicated combatant commander for the cyber domain will face challenges with the above issues for the duration of its lifespan. Similar to how we are just becoming aware of space as a distinct warfighting domain, cyber has already been a warfighting domain since the beginning of the 21st century. The time for a U.S. Cyber Force is now. The threat in cyberspace, and our underwhelming response to it thus far, cannot wait.

Travis Howard is an active duty Navy Information Professional Officer. He holds advanced degrees and certifications in cybersecurity policy and business administration, and has over 18 years of enlisted and commissioned experience in surface and information warfare, information systems, and cybersecurity. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Dave Schroeder served as a Navy Cryptologic Warfare Officer and Navy Space Cadre, and is Program Manager for IWCsync. He serves as a senior strategist and cyber subject matter expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He holds master’s degrees in cybersecurity policy and information warfare, and is a graduate of the Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School. Find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, the United States Government, or the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Featured Image:  National Security Operations Center floor at the National Security Agency in 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

Harnessing Tech Innovation from Blockchain to Kill Chain

By Jimmy Drennan

With all of the hype surrounding bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it can be difficult to sort through the noise and it might seem trendy to ask the question “How can this technology benefit my organization?” After all, a cryptocurrency started as a joke in honor of dog memes recently achieved a $2B valuation. Still, the underlying technological innovation behind Bitcoin, the blockchain, has real, concrete advantages that can impact numerous industries, from banking to logistics.

Applications in maritime operations are no exception. Blockchain is essentially a distributed database that incentivizes network consensus to make it extremely difficult to alter recorded data. Think of it this way: blockchain is like a museum that offers free entry, but heavily secures each exhibit with anti-tamper systems such that they can only be observed, not stolen or defaced. That so-called “immutability property” makes blockchain useful any time data integrity (i.e. preservation of data) is more important than data security (i.e. privacy of data).

Ideas are already being formulated by the Secretary of the Navy’s Innovation Advisory Council on how blockchain can improve additive manufacturing. Perhaps the most intriguing example of how blockchain can assist naval operations lies in ensuring an accurate recognized maritime picture (RMP). In naval warfare, nothing is more important when forming a kill chain than ensuring one has properly identified the target. RMP is even more critical when relying on networks, and the U.S. Navy has invested heavily for decades to become the world’s preeminent networked force. Blockchain has the potential to solve two of the Navy’s biggest problems associated with building RMP: ambiguity and manipulation. In fact, the broader maritime industry can also benefit from the use of blockchain due to inherent security flaws in the widely used automatic identification system (AIS).

What is a Blockchain?

A brief primer on how blockchains work will help to illustrate how they can impact naval operations. A blockchain used to record financial transactions, called “cryptocurrency,” is perhaps the best example to use. It is a distributed ledger that keeps track of every transaction ever conducted. Bitcoin, the original and most well-known cryptocurrency, relies upon a large network of independent users to prevent “double spending.”  Since cryptocurrency is just data, and not something tangible that is traded for goods or services, it would normally be easy for someone to spend it twice and delegitimize the entire system. Bitcoin’s unique process solved the double spending problem by calling upon its network users to work together to verify each transaction. Bitcoin conducts “consensus building” by offering a prize (currently 12.5 bitcoin) to a randomly selected user helping to verify the latest transaction. Once consensus is built and a transaction is verified, a new 12.5 bitcoin is awarded (i.e. mined) and the transaction is recorded to the blockchain. Each subsequent transaction is built upon the last, making it very difficult to retroactively manipulate data on the blockchain. In fact, the only way for a nefarious actor to alter a previous transaction or record an invalid transaction would be to achieve 51 percent of the computing power on the bitcoin network. For reference, today the world’s most powerful supercomputer, China’s Sunway Taihulight, would comprise just 0.6 percent of the bitcoin network’s computing power, which is growing exponentially.

Recognized Maritime Picture

U.S. and coalition navies rely on secure tactical data networks to share information from a variety of sensors to build RMP. Since RMP is built from the input of numerous, widely distributed users in these networks, they are susceptible to errors like “dual tracks” (i.e. a single ship or aircraft being broadcast to the network as two contacts) or faulty navigational data causing a ship to misreport its own course and speed. These errors can lead to ambiguity in RMP that could lead to critical delays in successfully identifying a threat. Tactical data networks are also susceptible to intrusion and manipulation, no matter how secure they are. Like any cybersecurity system designed to keep unauthorized users out, navies constantly strive to make their tactical data networks more secure against ever more determined adversaries.

Blockchain technology can help navies mitigate the problems of ambiguity and manipulation in building RMP. By building tactical data networks on a blockchain foundation, ambiguity will be resolved naturally as “consensus” develops around new tracks and they are distributed throughout the network. Once consensus is built around a track, blockchain’s immutability property makes it very difficult for subsequent users to clutter RMP with errant data on that track. Likewise, an unauthorized user trying to manipulate RMP by infiltrating tactical data networks will be challenged to alter data on established tracks. Even if a cyber attack attempted to insert new false tracks into the network, specialized blockchain features could be developed to override track data that is not corroborated by friendly sensors. A blockchain that utilizes special features and operates on secure networks is an example of a  private blockchain. Going back to the museum example, a private blockchain is like a museum that employs robust anti-tamper systems on the exhibits, but also restricts entry to museum members only. A disadvantage of a private blockchain is the reduction in available computing power, due to limited users, to ensure data integrity. The cost of rebuilding U.S. and coalition navy tactical data networks from the ground up utilizing blockchain will likely be significant; however, the advantages in data integrity by mitigating ambiguity and manipulation are worth analyzing.

Much as U.S. and coalition navies could benefit from private blockchain, the maritime industry at large could benefit from public blockchain to improve its RMP. Worldwide, mariners use AIS – an open network of ship position, course, and speed data – as a primary tool for building RMP. Implemented in the early 2000s, AIS has been critical to improving safety of navigation. Still, AIS has inherent flaws that blockchain could be used to fix. Because it is open source, AIS data can easily be manipulated to make a ship appear in a different location, report false course and speed, or even mimic another ship’s identity. As Glenn Hayes explains in the Maritime Electronics Journal, AIS “is vulnerable to malicious transmissions and runs the risk of being manipulated by individuals seeking to deceive the system.”  Illegal fishing, piracy, and smuggling are just a few of the reasons one might seek to deceive AIS. As use of AIS spreads, potential security issues will only increase. The data manipulation that AIS is susceptible to is exactly the type of vulnerability that blockchain was developed to address. With targeted funding and industry-wide effort, blockchain can provide data integrity to AIS to improve maritime safety and deter illegal activity at sea.

Countering Maritime Smuggling

Another potential application of blockchain in maritime operations could be in supply chain improvements to counter maritime smuggling of drugs, weapons, or any illicit cargo. Lieutenant Junior Grade Henry Bond wrote an insightful article for U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings on the potential for blockchain to protect the DoD supply chain. Lieutenant Bond’s analysis can be expanded to include the global shipping industry. Specifically, smugglers often exploit the inherent difficulties in conducting cargo inspections on container ships by concealing contraband within legitimate cargo in innocuous, unmarked containers. Economic and operational constraints do not often allow for the time it would take to open and inspect hundreds of containers pierside, and physical constraints usually prohibit at-sea inspection. So, to counter maritime smuggling via container ships, navies and law enforcement agencies must focus on deterring the use of containers vice locating illicit cargo in transit. Blockchain portends to act as a potential deterrent by openly and irrevocably recording the status of every container in the supply chain. Essentially, each container could be treated like a “transaction” in the blockchain, so that once it is loaded as part of a legitimate shipment, its status relative to all other nearby containers is “locked down,” making it very difficult to mix in an illegitimate container at a later point. Events like the opening or repositioning of a container could also be recorded as “transactions” to further complicate smugglers’ to conceal illicit cargo.

Ideas like those of Lieutenant Bond or the SECNAV Innovation Board are sound, but they require further development because blockchain is still a nascent technology. DoD, and the maritime industry at large, would do well to assign additional research funding to pursue ideas for applying blockchain in national defense and maritime safety.

Jimmy Drennan is the Vice President of CIMSEC. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

Featured Image: ORLANDO, Fla. (August 12, 2014) Sailors train on a new diesel generator simulator during a project review at Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, Fla. (U.S. Navy photo by Darrell Conley/Released)

Self-Driving Ships Will Soon Raise the Stakes at Sea

The following article originally appeared on the Kennedy School Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Cameron Lindsay

While Amazon continues to pilot its fully autonomous drone delivery system, Amazon PrimeAir, an autonomous delivery system millions of times larger is occurring at sea. And whether you are the passenger on-board a cruise ship or you hire a shipping company to transport your belongings overseas, in a few years, you will increasingly be at the mercy of a self-driving ship.

The prevalence of self-driving ships, or in more technical terms, autonomous surfaced vessels (ASV) or unmanned surfaced vessels (USV), which operate either remotely or completely independent of humans, is growing. And while for centuries mariners have sailed in awe of the ocean’s size and reverence of its might, the emergence of the self-driving ship ushers a new era of commercial economic opportunity as well as maritime security risks of miscalculation.

Similar to self-driving cars, most of the technology necessary for the development of a self-driving ship is mature and available at reasonably low cost. Using state-of-the-art computer algorithms within advanced radar, navigation, acoustic, and optical sensor payloads, self-driving ships are expected to operate more efficiently and safely than those operated by humans.

Self-driving ships present the opportunity for the commercial maritime industry to significantly increase profits through the reduction of costs associated with crew salaries, nourishment, fatigue, insurance, and decision bias. As described by the President of Rolls-Royce Marine Mikael Mäkinen, “autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations. While Rolls-Royce is vying to build the first autonomous smart ship with Google, other companies like the Norwegian company Yara seek to be the world’s first remote controlled and then totally autonomous electric cargo ship in 2020.

However due to the technical complexity, lack of legal precedent, and political hedging associated with self-driving ships, one can expect the wave that brings higher commercial profits to also lower the propensity for international consensus on their use. Self-driving ships present challenges like those faced by federal and state governments today in implementing safeguards when introducing self-driving cars to the public. Yet unlike self-driving cars, these policies will need to address centuries-old maritime legal constructs, sovereignty protections, and universally established rules for how vessels interact on the high seas. The necessity of these policies to accommodate the commercial interests of ships longer than the height of the Empire State Building and communal practices of family owned fishing trawlers will be a significant challenge to policy makers.

Unlike driving your car on a well-regulated interstate highway system, moving further away from a given nation’s coast corresponds with the transition of sovereign territorial waters to an international patch work of treaty obligations under the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea and regulatory organizations, notably led by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). With its UN mandate to promote safe, secure, efficient, and environmentally sustainable shipping, the IMO has an opportunity to advance maritime safety, security, environmental protections, and economic opportunity through its embrace of technological innovation.

While the impact of self-driving ships will be a severe disruption to the commercial maritime industry, the technology will also punctuate a new era of maritime security strategy. Historically, the vast distance of the warship’s Captain from his state served to strengthen professional restraint while simultaneously weakening the temptation of jingoism. Using a command and control structure analogous to cyber and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), an artificiality to the context of conflict engagement will exist between state authority and state actor. Development efforts underway today have already produced machines that can replicate some of the functions of fighter pilots and sentries, among others, and it appears inevitable that military system capabilities will continue to expand into areas traditionally the domain of human operators.

Nations seeking to capture a maritime strategic advantage may see the application of self-driving ships as a force multiplier to maritime search and rescue, mine clearance, and offensive operations. Conversely some nations may view the application of self-driving ships as their relief valve to unusually high operational demands resulting in accelerated personnel fatigue and vessel deterioration. When coupled with future advances in sustainable energy sources (solar, nuclear, and lithium-ion battery), self-driving ships will become an attractive investment alternative for global powers in extending their ability to project power by sea. Undoubtedly this regional and global great power competition will heighten the risk of miscalculation and unintentional conflict escalation as evident in the December 2016 seizure of an American unmanned oceanographic survey ship by Chinese naval forces.

For international maritime bodies, such as the IMO, International Seabed Authority, and International Whaling Commission, self-driving ships offer a low-cost approach for monitoring and reporting nation-state and private violators of maritime conventions. Through member nation financial support, the UN application of self-driving ships could respond to sustained maritime humanitarian crises while depoliticizing involvement and the risk to entrapment by member nations. This may serve as a pretext for the establishment of a sustainable internationally recognized unmanned maritime peacekeeping mission with the capacity to actively investigate illegal fishing off Somalia’s coast, resource exploitation near Fiji, environmentally damaging practices to the Great Barrier Reef, or freedom of navigation within the disputed South China Sea.

However, before the rewards of self-driving ships can be realized, their challenges must be acknowledged, accepted, and addressed through a combination of active diplomacy, smart policy, and visionary thinking.

Cameron Lindsay is a Master in Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and U.S. Navy Politico-Military Scholar. He is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. The views and opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Autonomous ship concept (Rolls Royce)