In the age of social media and increasingly available connectivity, experts say it is becoming more and more challenging for the U.S. military to conduct operations under a cloud of darkness.
Secrets now come with a half-life, multiple experts recently told Military.com. And what comes into question is how the U.S. military will plan each operation down to the smallest detail in order to avoid catastrophic incidents with emerging powers or near-peer threats such as Russia or China.
Because the growing unknowns to the Defense Department are: Who’s watching? Who’s listening? How are they manipulating operational secrets?
“With all of these sensors, sharing, there are no more secrets,” said Peter Singer, senior fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“They can be gathered, analyzed and shared in a way that was almost unimaginable in the past,” said Singer, who recently co-authored “Like War,” a book detailing how the rise of social media has revolutionized politics, global intelligence and warfare.
The most famous example of the intertwined nature of social media and war operations is the Osama Bin Laden raid in 2011, he said, along with other experts Military.com spoke with this month.
Sohaib Athar,a.k.a. @ReallyVirtual, live-tweeted the entire operation happening that night in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Griping about the noise, Athar posted, “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” It was hours before news reports would surface back in the United States that the operation was a success.
“It’s just a great illustration of how you can’t operate with any expectation of secrecy anymore,” Singer said in a telephone interview.
The raid took place on May 2, 2011, at a time when roughly 1 billion people had access to social media,according to a group called Statista. Compare that to the present: The database company estimates that, by 2019, there will be 2.77 billion social network users around the globe.
Then insert even more capabilities and functions rising worldwide: traffic cameras, driverless cars, Amazon’s Alexa, spotters gathering aircraft transponder data, satellite data, elements of the powergrid.
“All of these different things can be mined for information,” Singer said.
“You can figure out if or how a unit has deployed based on whether or not their hot water consumption has changed,” he said. “Or even the absence of something. If a certain Marine who’s tweeting suddenly stops tweeting, that’s an indicator.”
The United States has more than 1.3 million active-duty troops serving in its armed forces, with thousands deployed around the globe at any given time.
In January, reports that an interactive map found online — the Global Heat Map, published by the GPS tracking company Strava — showed U.S. service members in various military installations around the world by using satellite information to map the locations and movements of exercise trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a guidance soon after for all personnel to “maintain electronic security” for personal devices such as cellphones and exercise trackers used by service members worldwide.
It wasn’t just geeky tech: The Defense Department has clamped down on media engagement more and more in recent months, often citing operational security concerns to limit information sharing.
Deployment announcements and press releases have been curtailed. The U.S. Navy, for one, has become increasingly secretive.
In 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardsonissued a memo telling sailors to steer clear of “events that are primarily for marketing, and that don’t make an intellectual contribution to warfighting,” as well as openly sharing information with the press. More recently, the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group in October quietly left Washington state for a deployment with “no public notice,”USNI News reported at the time.
“You can limit some of these things, but it won’t change the fundamental nature of how the world has been rewired,” Singer said.
“There’s no going back to the way things used to be,” added August Cole, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Aside from buttoning up standard press releases or turning off a cellphone, “that doesn’t mean, though, that there can’t be innovation around camouflage, deception, subterfuge,” to keep an enemy at bay, Cole said.
“I think we’re going to see the same kinds of ingenuity that we first saw during World War II in trying to mask and conceal to the best of our ability large military operations, but they won’t be effective as often as they might have been before we all had iPhones and Twitter accounts,” he said.
Singer quoted a passage from his book, in which current Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley put it this way: “For the first time in human history, it is near impossible to be unobserved.”