War in the “Phygital” – Who is ready?
As we enter the final 18 months of 2nd decade of the new millennium, we are all trying to not only make sense but also trying to operate in the “new” world that we have created, especially in the last 30 years or so. The marketing term for this world, coined in this decade and it seems trademarked as well is called “PhyGital”. This is an expanded, merging expanse of our world – combining the physical with digital. It is looking radically different than the world we started with in 1989. Started - as 1989 was also a phase-change year or a leap for our world. In 2019, we are completing 30 years of “Cold-War-Minus” era compared to the 40 years of Cold-War previously.
Coming to war and warfare – cold and red-hot and all degrees in between on different temperature scales - we are grappling with a new substrate to play-in and play-with. Our world now is an eclectic-mix of geosphere, biosphere and information sphere. It is new exhilarating experience of always on and always connected. It’s not our favorite chessboard that gave us metaphors to form the objectives, strategies, tactics and organizations of the game we played in geosphere. The wars character has changed. All our assumptions, rules, strategies, interactions need to be relooked if not reformulated in the world that we have now and is rapidly emerging. Many have already pointed out on the emerging world order, for example, an interesting take is from application of what is called network theory on geo-political sphere. It is a transition from Chessboard to the Web that defines the last two decades, at least – perhaps a transition from game theory to network theory. Let us first look at our new invention – a new substrate in the information sphere. To do so we have to go back to 1989.
“Cold-War-Minus” World (1989-2019)
Let us assume you are in 1989. Suddenly, you open your eyes and you have come to 2019. What will be your new world experience - nuclear doomsday scenarios of the 1960s-1980s, have they actually occurred, demolished my world, and rebuilt a new planet or is this an alien planet?
In 1980s and early 1990s, students were asked by their parents and teachers to think about their profession in life. Today we hear profession word from the teachers and parents but the students are talking about pursuing their passion not necessarily a defined profession. In 1989 it was all about "competition" - how do I compete? It became "how do I collaborate" - now it is becoming “how we co-create”? In 1989 it was "Me too" today it is "Me only"? One can ask how can these two co-exist - “Co-create” and “Me-only”? This is the beauty of the new world – multiple me-only attitude people can come together to co-create if they seek synergy. There definitely are more conflicts as well – perhaps with different hues. Yet the choices are available to all. In 1989 it was "buying a car" (or buying anything) - it became "selecting a car" today it is "I am demanding my car". In 1989 it was all about "consuming", today it is shifting towards "embracing". In 1989 it was all about "watching from the sidelines", today it is all about "immersing in the action". In 1989 it was my street today it is my world – the global village. The era of technological driven globalization indeed defines the last 3 decades.
Globalization indeed helped to a great extent to connect the world through technological advancements. Yet, there are backlashes to the globalizing driven freedom. Amy Chuha in her book “World on Fire” describes "globalization has created a volatile concoction of free markets and democracy that has incited economic devastation, ethnic hatred and genocidal violence throughout the developing world." Unipolar world of 1990s, under the supervision and supreme control of the US, steam-rolled protected smaller economies into opening-up through globalization. Some years back an article in New Yorker noticed, “When we persuaded developing countries to open their doors to us, we also opened our doors to them. Now they’re walking through." Well, when doors are opened, traffic is both ways.
1991 Gulf-War, was an unprecedented display of modern military prowess through information technologies and beaming of live war operations in our drawing rooms announcing the arrival of a Uni-polar world. The single power at the top dictated its goals of globalization and “establishing-democracy” as the operational weapons for creating or maintaining the world-order. A decade later, 9/11 demonstrated what the networking capabilities in the hands of a cunning foe can unleash. US then was engaged in a war-on-terror. Also, US continued to focus on Russia in 1990s and even early 2000s and was so engaged in its war on terror that it missed the rise of a new power – the People’s Republic of China – rather US considered China as an extended economic system of the free-world albeit with different characteristics. China was able to hide from the USA, was it unipolar superpower’s ego or America’s intellectual opaqueness  or the fascinating Chinese ingenuity, or sum of all these factors, we may not know. US under belief in its own cleverness and goal to transform China into a democracy like what they did to USSR, could not see the continuous Chinese surge to replace US as a superpower - what is now being called a hundred year marathon. Since 2013, China under the new President Xi, has evolved a new initiative of reviving the ancient silk routes termed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). If US wanted to export democracy as free economic system in 1990s, China wants to export its own infrastructural connectivity with Chinese characteristics of co-development, as they term it, to the world at large. However, the initiative is developing into a potential strategic geo-political game-plan for the next 30 years of the marathon.
The physical landscape is in for a change as per what is emerging as analyzed above. However, there is another type of geography that we have created in the “Cold-War-Minus” World of last three decades – it’s the Digital or Cyberspace.
Cyberspace – Invention of the “Cold-War-Minus” world
We have created a new “geography”, a new “planet” with its own terrain, topology, rivers, mountains, dense and dark forests, oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, ponds and “geological” variations and diversity, on planet Earth. The natural “geosphere” – the natural earth that we all belong to and the natural “biosphere” – biological diversity and scale of life in the geosphere gave rise to us – humans – with consciousness levels and ability to think – which is unprecedented as in not found elsewhere or not known before scientifically – at least in the Universe that we have peeped into so far. The nature – through Darwinian “natural selection” and “creative quantum leaps” - with an arrow of time indicating the increasing complexity as the general direction of evolution - created its own “noosphere”  - a space of human thought. Just as biosphere changed the geosphere, noosphere changed not only the geosphere but biosphere as well. The noosphere created its own territory of socio-political-cultural-scientific-technological diversity of thoughts and manifestations in geosphere, biosphere and noosphere itself – resulting in evolution of multiple cultures, societies and political constructs of organizing ourselves into different shapes, forms and structures. Some 500 years back Europe started organizing the countries with own military capabilities as nation-states. These nation states were organized much better to create structures, processes and systems through application of science, technology and industry. The identities of the nation – belonging to a nation – a nationality – divided us by boundaries on geospheres as borders.
We have built our own new sphere – call it cybersphere or cyberspace. In creating this new sphere, a new fundamental called “information”, besides two other fundamentals of space-time and energy-matter, has been established in our manifested world. The sphere of information is unlike geosphere, biosphere or socio-political-cultural sphere which divided us into identities, borders and nationalities. This sphere is a unifier – at least that is what the early promise was of globalization. It differs from the previous spheres as it engulfs all of us by connecting us to each other in multiple dimensions in near real time. Yet, it was entirely invented and manifested through human thought, imagination and collaboration. It is “artificial” in that sense compared to the “natural” geosphere and biosphere. It is a “unifier” as it connects unlike other noosphere inventions such as religion, political ideologies and even nation states, that divided us by providing us with man-made identities and icons to indicate a-belonging-to.
The cyberspace as it is called had a transformative impact on the world. Singer and Friedman in their book, “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar – what everyone needs to know”, describe “Cyberspace is the realm of computer networks (and the users behind them) in which information is stored, shared, and communicated online”. The book further list down the key feature of cyberspace as - an information environment made up of digitized data that is created, stored, and most importantly shared. It is not the data alone, but it includes the networks of computers, infrastructure, Internet, Intranets, and other communication systems that allow information, organized as digital data, to flow.
Fundamentally, this new space is digital. It is made up of digits or to be more precise bits – binary digits. To encode, information, it seems, a simple switch of “yes” or “no” is sufficient. Just by the combination of these switches – bits – we can build information constructs of enormous complexity in the abstract. When this understanding met with our ability to move electrons rapidly within natural materials, we were able to create machines of enormous ability. Our ability, curiosity and ingenuity in exploring the “physical” has resulted in our ability to create this “digital” substrate that connects us to others and allows us to communicate, collaborate, converse and do commerce at a level of convenience, speed, range and depth that is transformative. This digital substrate is the invention of the last 30 years.
Emergence of the Phygital
The physical sphere – the geosphere, biosphere, energy-matter in time and space, and the digital spheres – the bits and the electrons, have been separated to a great extent and their interactions controlled and interdependence managed through well-established protocols. However, these differences and demarcations are getting more and more nebulous as sensor-embedded and connected devices have started emerging – the cyber-physical systems - the industry 4.0 became the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). We are transforming our playground into a substrate that will bring new complexity and uncertainty of levels that we have not seen before. The phygital  has started entering business and commercial sectors. The phygital will create what we call the sixth wave of innovation which will be based on (a) Things becoming Nano, Networked, Autonomous and Hypersonic, through (2) Computational approaches based on Algorithmic intelligence and Quantum Computing, and thereby providing (3) ability to synthesize reality, biology and energy. The law of increasing intelligence of technical systems  informs that the systems that we have been calling smart have already started improving to the levels of brilliance. Brilliant systems are self-learning and self-adapting. The cyber-physical systems with algorithmic intelligence operating up to hypersonic speeds (more than 5 times speed of sound) and till the nano-scale levels will make the phygital substrate ultra-complex. Evolution has ridden its arrow of time with increasing complexity as key direction and we perhaps are the conduits for this complexity vector. Complexity of today will be a toy shop for the ultra-complex phygital substrate of the future.
Evolution of Warfare with Revolutions in Military Affairs
Since 1990, after the end of Cold War, US Army started using the term “VUCA world” for increasing Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Whether the world today has become more VUCA compared to the world of say last century, is difficult to answer, though one can argue that the current world will always be a VUCA world for its residents. One thing though is clear the VUCA level of the world today is sufficiently higher than the existing tools, methods, strategies and thinking available to deal with it. Technological Systems and their evolution have been seen as a transformative impact on war-making capabilities and is captured in a popular term – Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). A Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) creates a paradigm shift in the nature of military operations by either making the core capability of a dominant player irrelevant or creating new capability in some new dimension of warfare or both. The RMA combines new technology, organization and doctrine to employ new operational concepts to achieve the above.
The military history students may recall how a device called Machine Gun created a new model for land warfare and destroyed the massed infantry forces in the open – the way wars were won before. The German Blitzkrieg rendered obsolete the static defense of prepared positions by infantry and artillery and the Carrier Battle Group by USA and British created a new model for naval warfare. All these inflexions in the way wars are conducted have been termed as creating a Revolution in Military Affairs.
Long-range precision fires, information warfare, system of systems, network centric warfare and cooperative engagement capability are key potential manifestations of the new RMA. When one looks at the model of a new RMA, one sees a culmination of synergy between new technologies, new devices and systems, new operational concepts and new doctrine and force structure. For example, the ICBMs in decades after WWII combined advances in fusion weapons, multi-stage rockets and inertial guidance to provide hitherto unknown dimension of inter-continental strategic warfare by developing the capability of accurate delivery of high-yield nuclear weapons across continents.
Since the Gulf-War of 1991, RMA being perfected and propagated by USA combines advances in C4ISR systems and long-range precision munitions with new operational concepts of network centricity, information warfare and continuous, rapid, joint and whole-theatre operations was reflected in the new devices showcased as, for example, Military Drones. It has been proposed that the actual firing and engaging with the enemy systems - will be completely overtaken by automated systems. Humans will retain (remote) control through strategic decisions about where and when to strike for achieving war objectives. The 7th Revolution in Military Affairs – called the Autonomous/Robotic war will become more and more pronounced as we move to the third decade of 21st century.
A previous article identified 15 dimensions of warfare including the Cyberspace and Economic Warfare. Further, we are witnessing a change in the character of warfare in these dimensions along with strategic switching from one dimension to another as an offset strategy. An eminent Chinese scholar - Yan Xuetong states that the ongoing trade war between not so sincere and genuine friends – US and China - since 1998 indicate that the world is headed towards a Bipolar Order that is different from cold war of the past in many aspects. However, the most important aspect this “strategic competition” differs is in the form and shape it is taking in an unchartered territory of cyberspace and digital economy. We are moving towards an uncertain, unstable and chaotic state of the world affairs with everyone having mistrust of the superpowers as well as the multilateral treaties and structures.
First known weapon of the Phygital – The Stuxnet and its life cycle
The new munitions that conduct war in the phygital have ingredients that are markedly different from weapons of purely physical or purely digital substrates. The key ingredient of such systems is – well – computer programs. Those little sets of instructions that people call code – not any secret military code – but working instructions for various machines to pass on different flags, messages, symbols, or data to other machines so that certain sequence of operation is started, altered, degraded, disrupted, corrupted or stopped in a particular deterministic, predictable and pre-defined manner. Purely digital substrate weapons – the viruses and worms, that are instructions for disrupting the existing programs of digital space – are indeed weapons of the cyberspace. However, when they are designed, developed and deployed for the specific purpose of disruption of the physical domain via the cyber-physical interfaces these become the weapons of the phygital.
“Stuxnet”  computer virus reportedly disabled centrifuges in an Iranian uranium-enrichment plant around 2005-2007. This was discovered around year 2010. It was a “worm” program designed apparently by US and Israeli scientists to take control of the centrifuges at the Iranian plant and make the centrifuges run at very high or very low speed to disrupt the working of the plant. It was successful till due to a programming error it escaped the controlled operation and was discovered. The Stuxnet is the first instance of nation state (well, apparently) carrying out cyber-attack. Different variants of the Stuxnet worm have been operating – for example one called Duqu was discovered some time back. Further, as these programs have escaped their controllers, they are now freeware available for others to study, comprehend and make into their own cyber munitions. Inadvertently, we have once again created a new dimension of warfare, just like we created the horrific nuclear dimension in 1945. What was unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was destruction of such power that although the power unleashing it claimed to be shivering afterwards, yet due to its lust for power made it to amass more of it in qualitative and quantitative terms. Today, many nation states and even non-state actors want to acquire a nuclear bomb for deterring others or threatening others.
Stuxnet was unleashed to the world as a new dimension of warfare, that may not have similar destructive power of a nuclear weapon, but it will have a considerable impact on the phygital substrate as it evolves and its implications in many hues and mutations are emerging. If Stuxnet and its many variants including Duqu were not enough bad news, the new worm – a bigger, multi-functional and some say order of magnitude more (20 times) complex than Stuxnet – called Flame started destructive information gathering across many countries. Coming from the same set of principles and given the complexity involved this cyber flaming of the phygital is something that should have been thought through more and deeper than it seems has been.
Cyber Flaming the phygital is not a cool idea. These worms and their well-designed architecture are fantastic template for everyone to use for their own small cyber fission flames. We now need to be prepared to face cyber flame attacks from as many numbers and type of “have-nots” and cyber-junkies as we can think of. Worse, since we are building more and bigger systems which are more and more based on software - in fact, software defines the functionality of these systems – now we need to be prepared for Cyber Flaming of these systems. All our data that we thought is secure, will be cyber flamed and suddenly, the trust deficit online increases that has been built anyway on weak foundations. Much worse, the next Osama Bin Laden may not need to hijack airplanes. He has to build cyber flame systems that can eat up mission critical data at the synchronized time points – after all, the worm waits for right moment to attack its prey.
Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame are the new weapons of warfare. These operate in the phygital. Above all these are characterized by low or delayed detectability, extreme levels of deniability and absolutely safe and remote levels of destructibility. As recent reports indicate the Stuxnet was in the making since 2002 and there are new evolutionary versions active today again. Further, these weapons conform to the most important aspect of weapons and war in the new and emerging world – the deniability of their usage. Indeed, these weapons are DEADLY.
Software is the Achilles Heel of Phygital
Software enables functioning of various hardware elements of a military system (or any system or system-of-systems or ultra large scale systems) to respond and actuate destructive - reactive as well as proactive - actions against specific changes in and around the immediate environment in time and space. Just by pre-coding a mesh of carefully written set of instructions stored on various forms of electronic organization called “media” or “memory” – has given the military and to the world at large unprecedented capabilities. The act of “programming” the machines includes a set of rules – called protocols to talk to each other and also “process” inputs in the form of data and facts represented by pre-defined symbols. It has come about not by manufacturing the “steel” bullets but by writing well-defined instructions called algorithms into machines that talk to each other in a deterministic (more or less) manner to act against potential threats.
Yet, software is the Achilles heel of the current systems. For starters, the reliability of software is a perennial problem – unsolved so far. Software has this amazing ability to remain “buggy” despite been checked by multiple human eyes and brains of species called programmers, testers and also their automated code checking tools. Further, to the great horror of any military commanders, a perfectly normal and working software system – which was working absolutely without any trouble for many years – can fail and lead to a catastrophe just because a particular path/condition that the environment never gave trouble to the system before, suddenly gets activated in the light of a unique input – which most crisis situations will create. Further, since the software based systems use open source, openly available, commercially available underlying software components – operating systems, communication protocol stacks, network routers, applications, GUIs, compression algorithms, security protocols, database management systems, etc, the field of cyber weapons – which exploit the inherent weaknesses of these known software systems – is the potential course of the underdog in the fight against technologically superior forces. These “black swans” that software-based systems are much more prone to, are the “soft belly” (pun not intended) of the new world. This vulnerability is much more pronounced in mission critical systems such as military systems, space vehicles, satellites and nuclear power plants or nuclear reactors that may produce fissile material.
Political and military evolution in the Phygital – Need for new thinking
One of the ways to create the next RMA is to create Counter Software Systems – these are specifically designed capabilities to maximize the possibility of failure of software-based systems thereby causing the destruction in the physical systems.
The key threat of war in the phygital includes the device of the current/emerging RMA – if the UCAV or military drones or the robot weapons are potentially cyber flamed. A set of micro devices (electronic spiders) that roam the battlefield – air, sea and land – and just impregnate the C4ISR systems, drones and precision munitions – so that either the bits that make the “instructions” and the bits that make the memory are not only erased, corrupted or destroyed but are “re-programmed” in a manner that the commands that drone handlers are giving the drones just turn against them. A Phygital Frankenstein - may be!
In an earlier article – a three pronged strategy was proposed – avoid foreign embedded software weapons, create counter software systems and also to evolve to more intelligent systems. One must add new ways to think and design our responses in the new wave of innovation in the phygital substrate.
We are in a repolarizing world reflected in strategic superpower competition between US and China in an unfathomable cyberspace and phygital territory that will give rise to new type of bipolar world. Further the phygital world is transitioning to the sixth wave of innovation through creative destruction of established economic systems. This is a sure shot recipe for increasing entropy of the repolarizing world. Also, the warfare and wars in the phygital world, contrary to an emerging war-less world view, are already mutating to manifestations that are not only opaque to our existing lenses and capabilities but are more deadly. We propose that a new theory of political objectives and comprehensive detailing of national interests should be developed. A tall order indeed, alas, it is necessary now!