The Days of Secret Military Operations May Soon Be Over. Does That Matter?

The Pentagon is investing billions in artificial intelligence to mine data that could help them win the next war. Officials have said they are actively working to "refine information analysis" through AI, to eventually reach operators on the ground or in the sky in a decisive and streamlined way. (US Army illustration)
The Pentagon is investing billions in artificial intelligence to mine data that could help them win the next war. Officials have said they are actively working to "refine information analysis" through AI, to eventually reach operators on the ground or in the sky in a decisive and streamlined way. (US Army illustration)

In the age of social media and increasingly available connectivity, experts say it is becoming more and more challenging for the U.S. military to conduct operations under a cloud of darkness.

Secrets now come with a half-life, multiple experts recently told And what comes into question is how the U.S. military will plan each operation down to the smallest detail in order to avoid catastrophic incidents with emerging powers or near-peer threats such as Russia or China.

Because the growing unknowns to the Defense Department are: Who's watching? Who's listening? How are they manipulating operational secrets?

"With all of these sensors, sharing, there are no more secrets," said Peter Singer, senior fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

"They can be gathered, analyzed and shared in a way that was almost unimaginable in the past," said Singer, who recently co-authored "Like War," a book detailing how the rise of social media has revolutionized politics, global intelligence and warfare.

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The most famous example of the intertwined nature of social media and war operations is the Osama Bin Laden raid in 2011, he said, along with other experts spoke with this month.

Sohaib Athar, a.k.a. @ReallyVirtual, live-tweeted the entire operation happening that night in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Griping about the noise, Athar posted, "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)." It was hours before news reports would surface back in the United States that the operation was a success.

"It's just a great illustration of how you can't operate with any expectation of secrecy anymore," Singer said in a telephone interview.

The raid took place on May 2, 2011, at a time when roughly 1 billion people had access to social media, according to a group called Statista. Compare that to the present: The database company estimates that, by 2019, there will be 2.77 billion social network users around the globe.

Then insert even more capabilities and functions rising worldwide: traffic cameras, driverless cars, Amazon's Alexa, spotters gathering aircraft transponder data, satellite data, elements of the powergrid.

"All of these different things can be mined for information," Singer said.

"You can figure out if or how a unit has deployed based on whether or not their hot water consumption has changed," he said. "Or even the absence of something. If a certain Marine who's tweeting suddenly stops tweeting, that's an indicator."

The United States has more than 1.3 million active-duty troops serving in its armed forces, with thousands deployed around the globe at any given time.

In January, reports that an interactive map found online -- the Global Heat Map, published by the GPS tracking company Strava -- showed U.S. service members in various military installations around the world by using satellite information to map the locations and movements of exercise trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a guidance soon after for all personnel to "maintain electronic security" for personal devices such as cellphones and exercise trackers used by service members worldwide.

It wasn't just geeky tech: The Defense Department has clamped down on media engagement more and more in recent months, often citing operational security concerns to limit information sharing.

Deployment announcements and press releases have been curtailed. The U.S. Navy, for one, has become increasingly secretive.

In 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson issued a memo telling sailors to steer clear of "events that are primarily for marketing, and that don't make an intellectual contribution to warfighting," as well as openly sharing information with the press. More recently, the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group in October quietly left Washington state for a deployment with "no public notice," USNI News reported at the time.

"You can limit some of these things, but it won't change the fundamental nature of how the world has been rewired," Singer said.

"There's no going back to the way things used to be," added August Cole, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Aside from buttoning up standard press releases or turning off a cellphone, "that doesn't mean, though, that there can't be innovation around camouflage, deception, subterfuge," to keep an enemy at bay, Cole said.

"I think we're going to see the same kinds of ingenuity that we first saw during World War II in trying to mask and conceal to the best of our ability large military operations, but they won't be effective as often as they might have been before we all had iPhones and Twitter accounts," he said.

Singer quoted a passage from his book, in which current Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley put it this way: "For the first time in human history, it is near impossible to be unobserved."

Digitization of War, Pursuit of AI

Big data exists everywhere. And the Pentagon is investing billions in artificial intelligence to mine data that could help them win the next war.

According to independent research group Govini, the Pentagon spent roughly $7.4 billion on emerging technologies in fiscal 2017. While AI accounted for roughly 33 percent of that total, the spending also includes quantum computing and big data analysis, as well as other information technology.

Officials have said they are actively working to "refine information analysis" through AI to eventually reach operators on the ground or in the sky in a decisive and streamlined way.

"[But] before you get to artificial intelligence, you have to get to automation, and what does that mean? It means we're really developing algorithms, so we then have to build trust in the algorithms," Lt. Gen. VeraLinn "Dash" Jamieson, the service's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance on the Air Staff at the Pentagon, told last year.

The military is looking to the defense industry as well as firms in Silicon Valley for support, added Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

"What all the services are heavily leveraging -- and looking at industry as well for support -- is how do I take that very human-centric methodology that we have today and use artificial intelligence that uses automation that uses some of the tools that are available to be able to do that kind of analysis?" Goldfein told reporters last July.

That's one element where the Pentagon is moving in the right direction in its efforts to get ahead in a world of continuously crowdsourced information, said Kara Frederick, a research associate for technology and national security at the Center for a New American Security. Frederick worked as an intelligence officer for U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command and later helped found the global security counterterrorism analysis program at Facebook.

"Evolving computing power is only going to increase our ability to process and exploit data," she said.

"The digital universe is growing by leaps and bounds," added Singer. "Depending on different estimates, we'll soon have 20 billion different devices online."

Metadata that can be harvested from a single post and peeled back layer by layer can give adversaries -- or friendlies -- the who, what, where and even why behind a single action, he said.

For example, "it's no longer, 'Oh Russia shot down an airliner over Ukraine, because here's also the individual Russian soldiers [who] pulled the trigger,' " Singer said, citing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over Ukraine in 2014 by pro-Russian separatists using a Buk surface-to-air missile system. All 298 aboard died.

"We're recognizing this is something that we can use to our advantage as a potential force multiplier," Frederick said. "Of course, our adversaries are doing the same thing. [So] we need to be wary of the competition … elements of that [upcoming great power] era that people are rightly warning about."

Even a person is a piece of data, Cole said.

What the world is going to have in the 2020s and beyond is "fused data streams" from things that aren't just new technological gear soldiers may be wearing, but the soldiers themselves, he said. "I can see a day, not that far off, U.S. forces are effectively creating camouflage that is digital that exists in the cognitive domain."

That could also turn into data that can be manipulated to deceive the enemy. Cloaking devices used within the electromagnetic spectrum, or even spoofing data can help forces hide in plain sight.

"How do you drop a parachute company" into a dangerous environment undetected? Cole questioned. "Some may say that's an outdated form of warfare to begin with."

Yet it's the most effective way to get people to a location quickly and in mass numbers, he said.

While deceiving enemy combatants isn't a new concept, altering what can be seen, heard or maybe even read by sophisticated software continues to flourish.

Last year, a research development team at MIT called Labsix successfully demonstrated how Google's image-classifying artificial intelligence could be manipulated into "thinking" that a 3D-printed turtle was instead a rifle.

"Our work demonstrates that adversarial examples are a significantly larger problem in real world systems than previously thought," the Labsix team said in its study.

And it doesn't even need to be that sophisticated, Cole said.

"You could use Twitter or Facebook campaigns … to show fake information that aircraft carriers are at home when they're actually deployed,'' he said, adding the ethics and legality of such actions brings about a much different conversation.

Ten years from now, "the impact machine learning and AI [are] going to have on this question of concealment .. .is perhaps one of the most important [elements] to figure out from a strategic, but also tactical point of view," Cole said.

Open Sharing in a 'Sea of Lies'

Operators harvesting en masse should take into account that these emerging technologies could lead to information wars with fake intelligence.

The truth can be buried "under a sea of lies, and that's what the Russians have figured out," Singer said. "Not just them -- politicians, teenagers, digital marketers, whatever. You can learn something about [a person], where they are, and then you can push messages to them. Those messages don't necessarily have to be true," which could have implications of psychological operations.

"We have to be aware these technologies can be used for malign purposes," added Frederick.

"It's not all for the good."

For example, during the Battle of Mosul, Islamic State fighters posting online repeatedly made claims of victory regardless of the group's casualties. "But … it wins the online war, it drives its message viral even though it wasn't necessarily true at first," Singer said.

Iraqi and Peshmerga forces made repeated attempts to retake the city after it was seized by ISIS fighters in June 2014. In 2016, dozens of local journalists embedded with troops to help stop false information coming from the ISIS campaign. It wasn't until 2017 that forces backed by the United States claimed victory.

As a counterterrorism analyst, "we had to get into people's mindsets early on," to see how or why "somebody on the other side is looking to harm you," Frederick said.

"This has military implications. What if you're on a PC, and someone has made your commander's orders look like he's saying something else through a digital forgery?" she said. "How do you know whether or not to obey those orders?"

Still, the more information out there in open-source networks, the more there is to be used against an adversary, Frederick said.

"We need to start incorporating a lot of the open-source work into our own intelligence work," she said. "If we combined national, technical means with open-source information like social media in a serious way, then layering that data is going to become a force multiplier."

The Effect Is What Matters

The space in which the U.S. can operate covertly or safely is shrinking, the experts said. Goals need to be set and kept in every mission, with a combination of cybersecurity, electronic warfare, stealth and spoofing, among other information or deceptive characteristics, at the forefront of each move, they said.

It's the only way to create surprise, if needed.

Military "invasions, occupations … these are anachronistic concepts in the information age," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

"It is going to be very difficult to put together any kind of large-scale operation" in an increasingly media and information-heavy age, said Deptula, who was also the Air Force's first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

"So the question must become: What is it that you're trying to do? There may not be one answer. There are a variety of different levels of operation, some of which quite frankly can be kept covert," he said. "We still do special operations very, very well today, and keep those operations below the social media net, if you will. But as you get larger and larger in terms of forces, and as you garner forces in a manner that is beyond one nation, it's very difficult … to achieve surprise."

There are various ways to "surprise" the enemy, Deptula said.

At a tactical level, it's possible. While there was no strategic "surprise" during Operation Desert Storm -- Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his forces "knew we were there" -- Saddam was still in the dark on how the U.S. would attack, the time or the place, he said.

"The Iraqis had no idea until the first bombs [were dropped] in Baghdad," said Deptula, who was the principal attack planner for the Desert Storm coalition air campaign in 1991. "And we did that through the use of stealth aircraft -- our ace in the hole."

For weeks, pilots flew tankers around the Iraqi airspace. On the night of the operation, tankers flew the exact same tracks, but this time they had stealth F-117 Nighthawks right beside them.

"It's what you can achieve at the tactical level that's important," Deptula said.

Any notion that the U.S. needs to buy a certain type of aircraft or weapon to achieve success "is nonsense," he said. "Like everything, there is an offensive element and a defensive element and … there's a variety of options in between."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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