Mike Karlbom, Technical Director for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning assigned to the Navy Cybersecurity Program Office (PMW 130) appears on the control room monitor during live broadcasting of the 2021 Hack the Machine: Unmanned cybersecurity challenge. (US Navy/Rick Naystatt)

WASHINGTON: How can the Navy improve the cybersecurity of its potential unmanned ships? Is the networked systems on your car a threat to security on a military base? What role will AI, exactly, play on the battlefield?

The Pentagon is slowly inching its way into the 21st century’s digital world and grappling with how emerging tech will impact its operations. That’s serious business when the prevailing opinion is the next conflict will be a cyber-heavy, multi-domain affair. But for a moment, let’s just appreciate some of the most surprising, interesting or just cool networks and cyber stories we covered during the Pentagon’s journey.

[This article is one of many in a series in which Breaking Defense reporters look back on the most significant (and entertaining) news stories of 2021 and look forward to what 2022 may hold.]

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan could have important impacts on the US government’s signals intelligence collection in the country, according to a report from my colleague Brad Williams. His story from the week before the last US troops left Afghanistan explored the possibility that the Taliban could “go dark.” As the Taliban swept across the country, it reportedly destroyed IT and critical infrastructure. During the Taliban’s previous reign in Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the internet was banned — though obviously it was the early days at the time. Now, shutting off internet would hinder the Taliban’s propaganda machine, but it has other ways of communicating in communities. “Losing networks as a source of intelligence would be a major blow to the military and Intelligence Community,” Williams reported. (As of early December, the internet network analysis firm Kentik said there hasn’t been a large-scale disruption… yet.)

2) Early Notice For China Off Zero-Day Vulnerabilities?

The Chinese Communist Party implemented a new data security law earlier this year that experts warned could provide its government-sponsored hackers with insight into zero-day vulnerabilities before anyone else knows about them. That could provide China with an advantage in the ongoing, but unseen cyberconflict between the US and China, particularly as the Pentagon pivots to commercial cloud capabilities. Read Wiliam’s in-depth report on the new law’s impact — more relevant than ever after a Chinese company disclosed a vast internet vulnerability.

3) Israelis May Ban High Tech Cars From Bases: ‘Perfect Espionage Vector’

Military buildings have tight restrictions on phones or smart watches. Networked-connected cars are often an after-thought. But that could be changing. According to a Breaking Defense report from April, the Israeli Defense Forces reviewed the security threats posed by cars equipped with cameras, global positioning systems or other Internet-connected devices — all at risk of cyberattacks in our interconnected world. The IDF told Breaking Defense it was continuously monitoring the evolution of cars’ on-board technology for cyber threats.

4) ‘Blue Angels for geeks’: Inside the Navy’s plan to ‘hack’ its own unmanned strategy

The Navy is getting serious about unmanned platforms in its fleet. But unmanned platforms need to prove their worth and resiliency against the cyberthreats the military faces daily from the Chinese and Russian militaries, as well as easily integrate into the rest of the fleet. Breaking Defense previewed the Navy’s  “HACKtheMACHINE: Unmanned,” where the service let hackers try to evade, break, or take over the service’s unmanned systems. Our reporter Justin Katz was given an exclusive preview of the event.

5) Exclusive: NORTHCOM Developing, Testing AI Tools To Implement JADC2

As the Pentagon seeks to link sensors and shooters to complete Joint All-Domain Command and Control, the military will need advanced artificial intelligence tools to sift through the unprecedented amounts of data presented to commanders. Some of those tools are under development at US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, through their Global Information Dominance Experiments. In an exclusive interview with Breaking Defense’s Theresa Hitchens, NORTHCOM officials highlighted three promising artificial intelligence tools that will aid commanders decision-making and ensure they have up-to-date information coming off the battlefield. The above story is paired with this second report; read them both for the full story.

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