U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) have received a lot of focus during the last thirty years of conflict, with the global emphasis on asymmetric warfare through non-state actors in more areas than just the Middle East. Tip of the Spear operations were carried out through incredible missions involving direct conflicts.
But with the conflict in the Middle East and other areas being overshadowed by the Great Power Competition with China and Russia, another question arises: what is the new place of the SOF community?
Within the SOF community, the answer is clear. Unlike what we see in movies, their primary, day-to-day activity is focused on building partnerships and relationships while also building our partners’ capabilities through training and support.
New capabilities that were not available during other Great Power Conflicts—such as the Cold War—may affect the current conflict, and how the SOF community can use them to build partnerships and relationships.
That is, how will cloud computing—in particular, the use of geospatial intelligence—impact or inform how tip of the spear operations are carried out during the Great Power Competition?
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How will cloud computing affect how data is collected?
Cloud computing, or the use of networked, distributed servers and data centers to store and process information by global users, is already being implemented across the world. Access to powerful servers, processors, and data sets has already changed the digital landscape as cloud-based apps, services, and infrastructure replace on-premises software and infrastructure.
The amount of data that can be collected is growing exponentially, as collection, storage, and processing capabilities increase. We can now collect:
- Publicly Available Information (PAI) from social media, news media, radio, public records, subscriptions, and so on—and data about that data, like time stamps, location information, “likes,” and more.
- A wide range of information from the Internet of Things (IoT), the collection of physical objects embedded with sensors and software for exchanging data over the Internet.
- Information from edge devices at the “edge” of a network, operating in inconsistently connected environments.
- Geospatial data, or data about place and time that can be mapped, often in real time.
- Human intelligence, or intelligence gathered from human sources.
There are many other types of data, all of which must be labelled, processed, correlated, and verified—and, in the process, creating more data about that data by using predictive analysis and other tools and methods.
The use of cloud computing processing techniques means that data must be accessible to the cloud—it cannot be stored in separate containers or systems that cannot communicate with each other, or that can only do so with difficulty. Using cloud-based, distributed processing tools means that data must be stored differently.
For example, tape backups may be a thing of the past, and data storage capabilities may be capped only by the amount of data that can be collected.
And by attaching sensors, mini-processors, and tags to almost everything we produce, we have dramatically increased the usability of that data, from weather information to the logistics of where a pair of boots is in a warehouse—to just who is trying to attack a secure computer system and where a Special Operations Forces unit is in real time.
How will cloud computing affect the Great Power Competition?
The effects of cloud computing on the Great Power Competition are not entirely predictable. Cloud computing has created a massive shift in technology toward artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) tools, which have not yet been fully implemented. Innovations are likely to emerge from unpredicted areas as organizations implement new, interacting AI/ML techniques at scale.
However, there are at least two obvious areas that cloud computing will affect: system reliability/hardening systems against cyberattack, and authoritarian control of information.
First, system reliability has increased under cloud computing.
Cloud computing has achieved a global, massive scale, so massive that it is nearly impossible to conceive of an event that can “take down” one of the larger clouds.
The distributed nature of the cloud has led to massive increases in reliability, uptime, and latency. Data is stored and processed on servers across the globe rather than a specific location, making the data easier and faster to securely access and harder to disrupt.
Our adversaries in the Great Power Competition, China and Russia, have long since begun their attempts to find vulnerabilities in our computer networks and other communication systems. They have attempted to breach the security on our systems at every level, taking advantage of the openness of democratic systems using network, operating system, database, social media, and other vulnerabilities to disrupt critical infrastructure, gather crucial data, and disseminate false information.
With wider implementation of cloud computing through U.S. and allied infrastructure, our systems can become less vulnerable to simple and coordinated attacks. The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that once disrupted Government and commercial systems will be harder to implement. The cloud allows the use of more sophisticated tools to identify legitimate, versus illegitimate, traffic, as well as to allocate more resources to a system whenever system usage spikes—for whatever reason. Spoofed accounts and bots will also be easier to identify for similar reasons.
Second, information dissemination will also increase with the spread of cloud computing—particularly as the full use of cloud computing requires 5G networks to fully implement.
Being essentially authoritarian states, China and Russia have attempted to control internal vulnerabilities by locking down information among their own citizens, controlling the information they receive, how that information is presented, and even whether its citizens can communicate with each other (for example, getting blocked from using the Chinese social media site WeChat, with over a billion users—and Russia is little better).
Cloud computing certainly brings risks to the openness of democracy. It may also provide new tools to help authoritarian states more easily censor and retaliate against the open sharing of data.
But it can also provide the tools necessary to bring accurate information where it is needed most: to people living under authoritarian leadership.
With the switch to 5G networks, communication capabilities will improve, with faster delivery times, more capacity, and lower latency across the network. 5G also provides new ways to connect, such as device-to-device capabilities and multi-hop networks, that are essential to edge devices, or devices that can communicate out in the field.
In a democracy, such capabilities can be used to create (for better or worse) even greater openness and interconnectivity.
In an authoritarian state, the same capabilities can be used by dissidents and others to reduce the ability of authoritarian governments to control and censor their people. The same capabilities used to control information likely will be used to create ad-hoc networks to share information more openly.
How will geospatial intelligence in particular affect the Great Power Competition?
Cloud computing has exploded the capabilities of mapmakers around the globe.
Before the rise of computing, mapmakers had to draw and redraw maps, collect information manually with painstaking slowness, and accept the fact that their maps would be outdated before they were completed. In the field, the SOF Community had to rely on misleading, incorrect, and even deceptive information in order to move through isolated, challenging terrain.
With computing, maps became more accurate and timelier. But they had to be stored on local servers and processed using software limited by local processing resources. They could be accessed via the Internet, making them far more convenient to distribute and copy. However, this information was still difficult to access in the field, and correlating data onto an existing map from a variety of sources was still a non-trivial process. Making plans often involves primitive technology, literal “sand tables” that must be used to illustrate geographical locations and personnel movements.
Moving the map-making process onto the cloud will do more than make it easy to access, update, and distribute maps. It will make it easier to correlate all sorts of data with not just locations in space, but over time, allowing patterns about location to be easier to view and study, and easier to “spot” with AI/ML tools monitor the data for emerging trends—as with Quiet Professional’s Cerebra Gray platform. This allows changes in the environment, behavior, and sentiment to become obvious in near-real-time contexts. It has also made it easier to share, display, and update maps in real time using edge devices.
Combined with the use of 5G and edge devices, this geospatial intelligence can be gathered from, analyzed at, and distributed across remote locations, allowing better decision-making capabilities out on the edge and generally across the information landscape.
How cloud computing might assist tip of the spear operations during the Great Power Competition
Special Operations Forces will always have a place in U.S. and other nations’ defensive capabilities, whether we are involved in active conflicts or otherwise. Their unique capabilities of relationship building, training, and increasing survivability of our partners will always be necessary.
But with the combination of cloud computing and the Great Power Conflict, these operations may look a little different. As cloud computing and 5G networks bring edge devices to the SOF and their partnerships, new opportunities may emerge.
Edge devices are just one source of possible new resources SOF can apply.
They can do more than collect geospatial and other information and send it back to centers in the U.S. where analysts wait to study the data and report back on their findings. Edge devices can be used to collect, process, and analyze data in the field, where it can be immediately applied to the situation at hand.
Edge devices can also be used as part of peer-to-peer networks within areas controlled by authoritarian states, allowing us to locate and gather human intelligence, provide analytical tools and access to data and processing power for our partners, and build custom solutions for problems in the field.
These devices can even be used to test network vulnerabilities of our adversaries in the field, allowing troops on the ground to quickly take advantage of any opportunities that arise—possibly in concert with the direct conflict actions that the SOF community is known for.
Edge devices are only one type of solution. Cloud computing also brings greater security, smarter logistics, and unprecedented interoperability, to be used in the SOF community and among conventional units. We don’t know yet how far such capabilities can take us—nor how the SOF community can learn to leverage them.
Because the purpose of the SOF community is based on building partnerships in some of the most inhospitable parts of the globe, SOF is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the distributed and interconnected nature of working with the cloud, wherever future conflicts might occur, and with whatever partners need our support.
They will no doubt continue to adapt quickly, using new tools and techniques to gather information, gain leverage, and position themselves where they’re needed most.
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