Rapidly evolving low-cost mobile technology keeps the military up at night

DARPA Deputy Director tells Armed Services hearing of mobile, cyber security threats

Are smartphones and other devices the scourge of cyber security warriors worldwide? Seems they are the root of lots of evil no matter how you slice it if you take a look at testimony given today by DARPA Deputy Director, Kaigham Gabriel to the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

 "Computing, imaging and communications capabilities that, as recently as 15 years ago, were the exclusive domain of military systems, are now in the hands of hundreds of millions of people around the world," explained Gabriel.  And the pace at which these systems, formerly the purview of a few peer adversaries, are being developed is increasing. "From a new system every 10 years decades ago," Gabriel stated, "to one every 1.5 years today."

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Gabriel went on to say that the threat brought on by mobile technology is not an abstract vulnerability.

"We have not enjoyed spectrum dominance since about 1997. Up until then, our electronic warfare systems could both detect and respond effectively to electronic warfare threats directed at us. In the last 15 or so years, however, that has ceased to be true. In both waveform complexity and carrier frequency, adversaries have moved to operating regimes currently beyond the capabilities of our systems," he said.

According to Gabriel nearly a dozen countries are producing electronic warfare systems using mostly commercial off-the-shelf technology (COTS).

"COTS electronics are a formidable source of new, high performance technology, but it has inherent limitations. The main one is economics- industry is motivated by the profit incentive, and modern electronics is extremely expensive to design and produce in small volumes. This high volume manufacturing is why the extremely complex technology inside cell phones appears to be so cheap," Gabriel stated.

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Gabriel went on to cite three main reasons why it has been possible to apply commercially available electronic capabilities to produce military-grade electronic warfare systems.

  • First, as microelectronic devices continue to shrink in size, they are, perhaps counter intuitively, also improving in performance. For example, smaller microelectronic devices are able to switch faster and, thus, operate at higher frequencies. This means that specialized microelectronic devices produced for DoD are now matched or nearly matched in performance to standard silicon-based microelectronics commercially available from multiple, global sources, he said.
  • Second, custom signal processing chips that took 2 to 3 years to develop and required chip designers, sophisticated design, and simulation tools along with chip fabrication facilities are increasingly being replaced by programmable chips or field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). Unlike custom signal processing chips that have their specific function fixed at the time of fabrication, FPGAs can be programmed, and reprogrammed, like software, after fabrication. This means that developers can cut as much as 18 months off development schedules, from 3 to 4 years to as little as 1.5 years, Gabriel stated.
  • Finally, the demand created by the global, mobile communications industry has led to a global manufacturing capacity and economic efficiencies that deliver the above capabilities at ever decreasing prices, he said.

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