Systemic wars of the third millennium

26/06/2008 Written by Roberto Preatoni


Just about a few days ago, an appeal­ing news appeared on the Inter­net. It regarded the deploy­ment of a new gen­er­a­tion of unmanned com­bat drones on a real bat­tle­field.
We are not talk­ing about aer­ial drones, here we are talk­ing about ground soldier-​drones, the real stuff we were all wait­ing for. Well, sort of.
The news is about the deci­sion of the US Mil­i­tary to deploy eigh­teen more of the same com­bat drones who were already deployed, exper­i­men­tally, on the Iraqi ter­ri­tory. Three units, to be pre­cise. Are those arti­fi­cial sol­diers any­thing new? Not really.

If you fol­lowed Zone-​H in the past years, we gave an exten­sive cov­er­age of the US Future Com­bat Sys­tem mil­i­tary pro­gram. We even crafted a speech at Def­con hacker con­fer­ence a few years ago as well as we pro­duced an episode of our comics based on the F.C.S. con­cept (Hero-​Z - ep. 2: War Games).
The equa­tion in which cyber-​military pro­grams and hack­ers are strictly related was demon­strated by the fact that dur­ing our speech on F.C.S., the front row of the Alexis Park Hotel’s con­fer­ence room was packed with green suits.
At that time, the F.C.S. was a multi-​billionaire US mil­i­tary pro­gram that was ini­ti­ated by the US Gov­ern­ment under which the way US went at war should have been totally re-​designed.
Tra­di­tional war­fare? Bye bye. Wel­come the new con­cept of a hyper hi-​tech army, where aer­ial, naval, ter­res­trial drones are con­nected with the troops thanks to a super-​network, based on a mix of satel­lite and ground microwaves telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem.
All data man­aged by a mil­i­ta­rized Linux ver­sion, devel­oped by the Berke­ley Uni­ver­sity.
What hap­pened to the F.C.S., the dar­ing project man­aged by US Boe­ing Indus­tries and hav­ing a cloud of spe­cial­ized sub-​contractors? Ini­tially went over-​budget, then re-​funded. Later on on some news papers it appeared the news that the project was stopped, now it’s re-​appearing again or at least, excerpts of it…


As explained by the US DoD, the drones deployed exper­i­men­tally on the Iraqi ter­ri­tory are lim­ited in power and autonomy.Originally the con­cept was to have fully autonomous A.I. dri­ven drones, a spe­cial team of F.C.S. sub­con­trac­tors was hired to develop the nec­es­sary tech­nol­ogy in terms of visual recog­ni­tion, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and networking.Did they suc­ceed? As we expected, appar­ently not com­pletely. Yet.
In fact, the newly deployed ground com­bat drones are mere exten­sions of the body of a remotely located human oper­a­tor.
There were too many con­cerns among US Mil­i­tary in terms of ren­der­ing the drone fully autonomous by imple­ment­ing the cur­rent sta­tus of A.I. tech­nol­ogy devel­oped so far by the F.C.S. sub­con­trac­tors.
To put it sim­ple, they didn’t want to rely on the drone’s A.I. fear­ing of US troops casu­al­ties due to friendly fire. Loos­ing US sol­diers lives because the drone would shoot at the wrong tar­get is some­thing unac­cept­able from the polit­i­cal and pub­lic opin­ion point of view.
Con­cerns that Chi­nese Mil­i­tary author­i­ties might not have, we’ll talk later about that.
At this point, the ques­tion from the hacker’s point of view should be: how the com­bat drone is con­nected to the remotely located oper­a­tor? Is it by dig­i­tal or ana­logue sig­nal­ing? Is it through a ded­i­cated or through a stan­dard pro­to­col?
Here we have to spec­u­late, but we’ll try to do it wisely.
Ana­logue or dig­i­tal con­trol­ling? A com­bat drone which needs to rely on a com­plete remote con­trol­ling oper­a­tor has to transmit/​receive the fol­low­ing data:
– Audio­vi­sual, the remote oper­a­tor has the need to rely on a high def­i­n­i­tion video stream in order to shoot at the right tar­get. Sure, to min­i­mize the risk of shoot­ing against friendly troops US Mil­i­tary declared they employed “spe­cial secu­rity solu­tions” such lim­it­ing the ground zone in which the drone is fire-​ready and avoid­ing that the shoot­ing tur­rets could turn toward friendly troops. These “spe­cial secu­rity solu­tions” are obvi­ously can­dies spe­cially crafted for US media and pub­lic opin­ion, nobody here believe they can be any effec­tive.
– Teleme­try, you don’t want to loose con­trol of your sys­tems because you weren’t capa­ble to fore­see the incom­ing fail­ures: elec­tric sta­tus, engine sta­tus, heat sta­tus, tire sta­tus, gear­box sta­tus, ammo sta­tus, net­work sta­tus, fuel sta­tus.
– Blue Force Track­ing sys­tem capa­bil­ity, google for it ;)
In this view we can pre­sume they are already rely­ing on a sort of remote dig­i­tal con­trol­ling sys­tem.
Cleared that, the next ques­tion is: pro­pri­etary or stan­dard pro­to­col for such dig­i­tal con­trol­ling sys­tem? A pro­pri­etary pro­to­col *might* be in place at the cur­rent sta­tus of the project, but in view of future imple­men­ta­tion of the drones in the US com­bat grid, we can pre­sume that they will adopt a sort of TCP-​IP enhanced pro­to­col, stan­dard within the whole US com­bat grid. Espe­cially because they have big expec­ta­tions from meshed mil­i­tary telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion grids.
And that’s bad.

When­ever you have a super mil­i­tary power such US, which is invest­ing a lot of resources (finan­cial, human, polit­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal) into improv­ing their war per­for­mances, you always end up with a sort of sys­temic war. Sun Tzu under­stood it a cou­ple of mil­len­ni­ums ago, why shouldn’t you?
An hypo­thet­i­cal war between two super pow­ers such China and US would end up in a war between sys­tems. Hack­ers here might come in handy.
Vice-​versa, an hypo­thet­i­cal war between a super power and a poor coun­try would end up in a sort of asym­met­ric war­fare, hav­ing the super power deploy­ing sys­tems on the bat­tle­field and its poor oppo­nent find­ing that once again, hack­ers might come in handy. It would be eas­ier to try to take over (read: hack) your oppo­nent hi-​tech war­fare sys­tems rather than try­ing to defy them by tra­di­tional war means, make sense?
Don’t be sur­prised should you dis­cover that nations are already spy­ing each other try­ing to catch infor­ma­tion on their oppo­nents as well as friends’ war­fare tech­nol­ogy. You are too smart to be such naïve, aren’t you?

Regard­less, here we have one of the first drone oper­a­tors, Sgt. San­ti­ago Tordil­los, dis­trib­ut­ing bonus hacker can­dies dur­ing one of the demon­stra­tions given to the press:

The thing is not shoot­ing on its own. You’ve got to have these,” he said, wav­ing a set of small, sil­very keys, which fit into a lock on the Talon’s briefcase-​sized con­troller. A sin­gle switch causes the robot to reboot and return to safe mode.

Thanks a lot, Sgt. Tordil­los. I guess marines should attend some basic secu­rity courses as well, beside the tra­di­tional com­bat training.


Cur­rently there are only a bunch of nations poten­tially in pos­ses­sion of the nec­es­sary skills to develop an alter­na­tive hi-​tech war pro­gram to the US’s F.C.S. You can count them on the fin­gers of your hands, let’s see which ones and let’s spec­u­late on their real power and drive.

U.K : They have a decent tech­nol­ogy back­ground but they are not that much inno­v­a­tive. Try to remem­ber, when was the last time you bought some high tech hard­ware designed and pro­duced in Charles and Camilla’s land? Beside, they still have to solve the issue of dri­ving on the wrong side. Thank­fully they are not com­pletely tra­di­tion­al­ist. While they still enjoy watch­ing jurassic/​weird sports such cricket and Ascot horse races, guys such Sir Richard Bran­son are already man­ag­ing to shoot civil­ians into space bring­ing them back to earth safe and sound. But Sir Richard Bran­son seems to be inter­ested only in tech­nol­ogy applic­a­ble to the civil­ian world and not to mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy. Is he?

Ger­many: they are still fight­ing with their post Hitler her­itage, which was heav­ily influ­enc­ing (on the neg­a­tive side) every sin­gle step they decided to take into the devel­op­ment of any kind of new war tech­nol­ogy in the last 70 years. Beside that, think about their top-​notch car stereo tech­nol­ogy. Com­pa­nies such Blaupunkt and Becker are sup­ply­ing, since ages, car man­u­fac­tur­ers such Mer­cedes with stun­ning, reli­able, inde­struc­tible tech­nol­ogy …designed in the 70’s.

France: they are cer­tainly in pos­ses­sion of the nec­es­sary skills to man­age huge hi-​tech projects in direct com­pe­ti­tion with US’s sim­i­lar projects. Think about the Air­bus con­sor­tium, in direct com­pe­ti­tion with US’s Boe­ing. They also pos­sess good mil­i­tary and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy (France aero­space, Sagem etc). They even have the chau­vin­ist drive which is a must, should you decide to develop some­thing non US-​centric. But… it might be eas­ier for them to spy on their neighbor’s tech­nol­ogy rather than devel­op­ing their own one, con­sid­er­ing the immense bud­get that is needed to develop some­thing like the F.C.S. from scratch. Call it post-​Echelon self-​defence habit.

Italy: among the G8, they are good in devel­op­ing engine/​mechanical tech­nol­ogy, they have huge inno­v­a­tive capa­bil­i­ties, they are even good in research­ing into (but not devel­op­ing) cyber tech­nolo­gies but his­tor­i­cally they are always fight­ing with their ten­dency to serve half baked pies. Sorry, pizzas.

Italy it’s the coun­try that decided to develop nuclear plants, then they stopped the con­struc­tion half on the way through because it was “dan­ger­ous” (post Cher­nobyl foes that Italy’s not-​so-​much-​post-​communist politi­cians sold well to get green votes) find­ing them­selves in the need to buy the miss­ing energy from the French nuclear plants, located a few meters away from the Ital­ian bor­ders. Beside, their huge national debt isn’t allow­ing them even to buy new tires to replace those worn-​out ones equip­ping their 60 years old mil­i­tary trucks. Damn, they have such a good poten­tial, if only they weren’t Ital­ians…

Arab and oil rich coun­tries: they are very rich thanks to the oil, but they pos­sess zero tech­nol­ogy, totally rely­ing on west­ern tech­nol­ogy even for the extrac­tion of their own oil. Beside, they seem to pre­fer to use their money to buy expen­sive Ger­man lux­ury cars with their Blaupunkt and Becker 70’s car stereo tech­nol­ogy, rather than invest­ing it in long term social, indus­trial and engi­neer­ing devel­op­ment plans. Dubai? An even less mean­ing­ful Las vegas that still have to prove it has a sense.

Japan: “they have the best tech­nol­ogy but they are only good in copy­ing it from west­erns, improv­ing it in terms of qual­ity, size, price and effi­ciency”, this is a bull­shit stereo­type com­ing from the 70s. The truth is that now they devel­oped some excel­lent inno­v­a­tive skills and in terms of Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence r&d they could teach to the rest of the world. Unfor­tu­nately they once did have the money, not any­more thanks to a wise US cur­rency war. Over the time they became very much US depen­dent from the mar­ket and cul­tural point of view and they will never, ever dare to develop such war tech­nol­ogy, pre­fer­ring to invest their robotic efforts in devel­op­ing those gor­geously look­ing, sex­u­ally attract­ing fem­bots we all would love to marry with.

Rus­sia: they had ugly, shitty war tech­nol­ogy that was always work­ing well and on which Euro­peans still rely to send their peo­ple to space. Have you ever seen the Baikonur space launch facil­ity? Its tech­nol­ogy it’s com­ing from the 60s, but it’s still alive and kick­ing well. Jokes apart, nowa­days Russ­ian men are too busy in mak­ing money and their gor­geous women in find­ing exotic ways to spend it rather than think­ing of tak­ing over the world with sys­temic wars. They just pre­fer to buy it out, Abramovich docet.

China: They do have the money, they even pos­sess the vast major­ity of US for­eign debt. They have excel­lent war tech­nol­ogy and devel­op­ment capa­bil­ity. They are extremely good in cre­at­ing and man­ag­ing huge, sorry HUGE projects. They have the chau­vin­ist and prac­ti­cal drive to be the best in the world. They can decide to move a whole city and their inhab­i­tants should it be nec­es­sary to use the same land plot to build a new mega-​factory or a new Olympic facil­ity.
They absolutely haven’t any inno­v­a­tive capa­bil­ity (but they had it a thou­sand years ago). Nonethe­less:
– they have the money to buy bril­liant west­erns minds (think about Huawey indus­tries) to solve their lack of inno­v­a­tive skills.
– they are prone to spy and steal our tech­nol­ogy, not giv­ing a shit about what the rest of the world is think­ing about it. RIIAA’s plans over there, seri­ously? To buy coun­ter­feited copies of Hol­ly­wood movies at a very cheap price to be sold later as orig­i­nal in US.
Last but not least China has already invaded our ter­ri­tory by sell­ing us the core tech­nol­ogy of the elec­tronic sys­tem on which west­erns are bas­ing entirely their own lives and econ­omy. God knows what kind of “unso­licited embed­ded hard­ware” (yes, we can be diplo­matic as well, our last report on Chi­nese hack­ers opened up some issues between Ital­ian secret ser­vices and Chi­nese diplo­mats) our made in China sys­tems are already imple­ment­ing. (God bless US & Israel, whose sys­tems are crys­tal clean, right?)


Have you seen the lat­est Die Hard movie? If not, you should. The plot is nice, a psy­cho­pathic ter­ror­ist plans to take over the US national crit­i­cal infra­struc­tures ask­ing for a ran­som. And he does it, shut­ting down crit­i­cal sys­tem after crit­i­cal sys­tem by means of com­mis­sion­ing to smart pro­gram­mers and hack­ers small pieces of work that only once put together might serve the pur­pose of the plot.
Beside the kung-​fu and the explo­sions, I was very much impressed by the accu­racy adopted by the movie script when rep­re­sent­ing such sce­nario. It’s evi­dent they used some skilled advi­sor dur­ing the movie pro­duc­tion in order to make it look­ing plau­si­ble.
I must admit it, I was jeal­ous. I wish such advi­sor was me.
Stick­ing to the topic, days ago, I man­aged to fin­ish the so much acclaimed Metal Gear Solid 4 video-​game. Okay, I’ m 41, so what? I still indulge myself in play­ing silly video-​games from time to time.
Wait a minute, did I say silly? I must apol­o­gize with Hideo Kojima, the Metal Gear Solid saga pro­ducer and mas­ter­mind.
While I find Kojima’s in-​game videos too much long and bor­ing (some cut scenes are 45 min­utes long…) the plot of the last Metal Gear Solid videogame is very much appeal­ing. In a nut­shell, it’s all about a hi-​tech war sys­tem, sim­i­lar to F.C.S. that it’s taken over by third par­ties. Sol­diers gets par­a­lyzed and sys­tems get com­pro­mised. Hacker’s stuff, once again.
Remem­ber George Orwell’s 1984 and the big brother? Now we have it, no doubts. Today we are expe­ri­enc­ing some­thing that 70 years ago was fore­casted in a movie. The ques­tion is how long should we wait to expe­ri­ence what has been bril­liantly fore­casted in Die Hard 4 and Metal Gears Solid 4 (from the gen­eral pub­lic per­spec­tive, as here we all know it already)

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