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Information and communications under the spotlight at MICSSA

MICSSA 2018.Information and communication technology and its military applications and capabilities came under the spotlight at the eighth Military Information and Communications Symposium of South Africa (MICSSA) on Tuesday.

Under the theme “Information Communication Technology (ICT) as a military capability,” MICSSA promotes information and communications related development between the defence community, government and industry, local and international. MICSSA provides the platform where ideas, strategies, requirements and potential solutions can be shared and discussed, the organisers said.

MICSSA 2018 was opened at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria on Tuesday by South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Vusi Masondo. He said one of the military’s tasks is to protect the cyber as well as land, sea and air domains of South Africa. MICSSA is a place where people can share experience and ideas, particularly with regard to implementing ICT solutions for the future, Masondo said.

Dr Motodi Maserumule, Executive Director: CSIR Defence Peace and Security, said technology has dramatically evolved the modern battlespace, for example converting dumb bombs to smart bombs and allowing for real-time surveillance. He said ICT is a software-based force multiplier and ICT infrastructure determines who gains battlefield supremacy.

Maserumule acknowledged there are challenges, such as military systems being overtaken by commercial technologies; lack of a skilled workforce and limited technology investment. “To keep a competitive edge we need to invest in smart systems,” he said, and appealed to the Department of Defence to invest in ICT capabilities.

Defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman gave an informative overview of ICT as a military capability. He said there are many reasons why the military has ICT infrastructure – for instance it enhances the observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loop at every level; enhances command and control (commanders have never had so much information available so quickly); enhances data fusion; enhances information analysis and intelligence; provides after action reports; enhances information dissemination and logistics management.

Heitman noted that ICT is everywhere, and everyone is communicating. For instance, Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic to Islamic State rebels are communicating with cellphones, push to talk radios, satellite phones and laptops.

However, for all its benefits, Heitman cautioned that ICT also holds real risks and brings real vulnerabilities. For example UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi and senior FARC leader Raul Reyes were killed after their satellite phones were traced while Chechen general Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed by anti-radiation bombs modified to home in on his satellite phone. Islamic State militants have inadvertently given away their positions after posting selfies and increases in cellphone chatter have given away operations and positions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Ukraine.

Heitman also cautioned of information overload and the consequent bloating of staff and micro-managing. His greatest concern is whether militaries can still function without electronic aids – computers fail and give incorrect information – such as when an Iranian airliner was shot down by the United States in 1988 – and electronics are also targeted by the enemy. For instance, electromagnetic pulse weapons are designed to disrupt electronic systems and ICT infrastructure is a target for jamming and disruption. For instance, there are handheld UAV jammers available and police forces are using electronic devices to disable a moving car by frying its electronics.

Other concerns he raised included what happens when blue force tracking data is intercepted by the enemy; and what happens when technology is not available or functional. Human error is another factor – for instance a US facility was breached when a flash drive was deliberately left on a desk, and Iran’s nuclear facilities were attacked via a virus embedded on a flash drive that was inadvertently brought into the facility.

Heitman said that technology is a wonderful thing, but can be frustrating, and we are probably doing better than before with electronic systems, but cautioned that analogue technologies remain essential to command and control.

Other topics examined on Tuesday included an overview of the logistics information management systems in the Department of Defence; defining future ICT requirements for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) communications links; smart spectrum sharing between defence and commercial frequency bands and enhancing operational effectiveness through ICT capability management.

An exhibition area at the CSIR allows companies to showcase their products and services. Some of the companies exhibiting include GEW Technologies, Saab, Hytera, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Symantec, Reutech, Armscor, Huawei, Microsoft and SITA, amongst others.

MICSSA platinum sponsor Ansys pointed out that ICT and the cybersecurity solutions that protect ICT systems have become major factors when it comes to military preparedness and that both the South African Defence Force and local defence contractors need to prepare for a new kind of war. “This requires an integrated and holistic approach that encompasses unique intellectual property (IP), bespoke hardware and software systems, and the highest levels of protection across the many different ICT systems used in the defence space,” the company said.

“As we are all painfully aware, warfare no longer plays out exclusively in the theatre of conflict – or even in localities vulnerable to terrorist attack,” said Butiki Shabangu, Business Development Executive at Ansys. “One of the greatest areas of risk today is cyber warfare, which can reach deep into the information infrastructure of any government agency or even of the country as a whole.

“As the fourth industrial revolution gains pace, and as the fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres become an everyday reality, the damage that can be done by cyberattacks at every level of society increases exponentially.”

Just a few of the many topics that will be unpacked on Wednesday and Thursday include Air power and cyber security (Lt Col Q Dickson); The benefits of integrating civilian satellite telecom infrastructure into military communications (B Greyling); The future unified communications capability of the Department of Defence (G Booysen); The threat landscape of Africa’s Internet of Things devices (R Hanslo); Tactical voice and data links – a fundamental military ICT capability (Dr J Whitehead); The use of social media in hybrid warfare (N Veerasamy); and how new telecommunications and other technology can provide added weapons to the SA Army (Lt Col P Lediga).

MICSSA concludes with a Golf Day on Friday 18 May.