Darpa Warns: Your iPhone Is a Military Threat

Photo: MastroBiggo/Flickr

There’s a growing threat to the U.S. military, according to the Pentagon’s premier research wing. No, it’s not Iran’s nukes or China’s missiles. It’s the iPads, Android phones and other gadgets we all carry around with us every day.

“Commercial consumer electronics has created vulnerabilities by enabling sensors, computing, imaging, and communications capabilities that as recently as 15 years ago, were the exclusive domain of military systems,” Darpa deputy director Kaigham “Ken” Gabriel tells the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on emerging threats. “These capabilities now are in the hands of hundreds of millions of people around the world and in use every day.”

“This is not an abstract vulnerability. We have not enjoyed spectrum dominance since about 1997,” he adds.

The warning is a bit ironic, coming from the head of an agency that was founded in response to a surprise Soviet space launch, and is today best known for its shape-shifting robots, its mind-controlled prosthetics, and its missiles that fly at 20 times the speed of sound.

But Gabriel, in his written testimony (.pdf), says the consumer tech threat is very real — especially to the Pentagon’s once unparalleled ability to wage electronic warfare. Today’s communications devices hopscotch between frequencies in a way that makes them tough to spoof or jam. Tomorrow’s electronics — which will likely rely on lasers to pass along data and phone conversations — will be even tougher to stop.

“In both waveform complexity and carrier frequency, adversaries have moved to operating regimes currently beyond the capabilities of our systems,” Gabriel says.

“EW was once the province of a few peer-adversaries,” he adds, using the acronym for electronic warfare. “It is now possible to purchase commercial off-the-shelf components for more than 90 percent of the electronics needed in an EW system.”

Meanwhile, the GPS signals so vital to military operations — from targeting bombs to flying drones — have become increasingly vulnerable to enemy attack. That’s how the Iranians claim they were able to capture a secret and stealthy American spy drone in December. Even if a device isn’t necessarily designed to screw with military systems, it can still be used against our forces, Gabriel notes. Today’s microelectronics to be reprogrammed for all sorts of jobs.

“The adversary knows this and has aggressively sought means to counter our dependency on GPS. Jammers and commercially driven spectrum compression may threaten our ability to use GPS in areas denied,” observes Gabriel, who is testifying before Congress while his boss, Darpa director Regina Dugan, speaks at the TED conference.

Gabriel says that the U.S. must build better internal navigation systems in response — gadgets that provide location, without the benefit of GPS. And, where it can, the Pentagon has to build its own “very high power transmit/receive modules for radars and radios, for example,” when the commercial sector can’t be bothered.

Another way to defend against enemy gadgets is to fry them with microwaves. That’s the goal of the Air Force’s “Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project,” or CHAMP. In his written testimony (.docx), Air Force deputy assistant secretary for science and technology Steven Walker notes that the Air Forces has “completed two ground effects tests demonstrating high power microwave effectiveness against five classes of electronic targets; performed missile live fire showing the ability to navigate, aim, and trigger inert payload; and successfully integrated the inert system into a B-52 aircraft.”

In her prepared remarks (.pdf), Marilyn Freeman, Walker’s counterpart at the Army, is emphasizing the Army’s efforts to protect troops on remote bases, where heavy armor and spy gear can’t easily be sent. Troops from the 7th Special Forces Group helped test out some of the gear in Afghanistan, she notes. A battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division will head to the warzone this year with “a low-logistics armoring system to expediently establish protection for critical assets, such as the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), mortar pit, and weapon/sensor systems.”

Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the new Chief of Naval Research, is using the hearing to remind Congress about his futuristic weapon projects, like the electromagnetic railgun and the free electron laser. But, in many ways, Darpa’s emphasis on the danger poised by the everyday gadget that is the most startling moment in the military researchers prepared remarks.

Some of these observations feel uncomfortable. Even to us,” Gabriel says. “Our responsibility, however, is to the uncomfortable. It is the Agency’s singular mission to identify divergences and the threats and opportunities they represent. These are the seeds of strategic surprise.”