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Sen. Warner Warns China, Russia are Accelerating Cyber, Disinformation Capabilities

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va). on Dec. 7, 2018. CSPAN Image

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence gave a sobering assessment of the expanding ability of Russia and China to interfere with U.S. institutions through cyber and disinformation campaigns.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said the General Accountability Office “found almost all our new weapons systems are vulnerable” to cyber attacks, he said in a Friday speech at the Center for a New American Security.

“If at the seams we don’t have protections, you have vulnerabilities,” he said. The GAO said even inside the Pentagon’s newest systems, ”DoD’s weapons are more computerized and networked than ever before, so it’s no surprise that there are more opportunities for attacks.”

Outside the Pentagon, the so-called internet-of-things is a growing vulnerability for all sectors of government, he added. Vulnerabilities are multiplying, Warner said, and there is no penalty for not closing gaps or failing to tighten security.


What is adding new intensity to this concern in the defense realm is Moscow’s and Beijing’s spending on disinformation, misinformation and cyber even as the United States’ $716-billion Pentagon budget largely goes to conventional weapons and personnel costs rather than offensive and defensive cyber advances, Warner said.

“Russia is already our peer” in cyber, and “in misinformation and disinformation is ahead of us,” the senator said

Warner noted multiple times during his presentation that the Kremlin’s disinformation and misinformation efforts have often succeeded in causing confusion among electorates and sowing doubt over the results: in the 2016 U.S. election, in the French presidential campaign, and in the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, as examples.

The reality is Russia “spent less than the cost of an F-35 to interfere in the United States, France and Brexit” in those elections. Not standing still, Moscow and Beijing are now pursuing “deep fakes,” where videos of prominent figures are tampered with to change the audio message, escalating misinformation and disinformation operations in their favor.

China is investing in Artificial Intelligence and 5-G communications technology. China is “starting to outperform us” in those tech areas, with the goal to lead the world, Warner said when answering an audience question. Major Chinese firms like ZTE and Huawei are not just copying or stealing from American or European companies, but developing their own systems.

Warner added these companies and the Chinese government itself are offering themselves as models of rapid technological development and how to leverage the internet to their own advantage – from commerce to political control.

No longer does the West believe the “internet is going to change China,” he said.
“We’re seeing the limits of that [now].”

As he has in the past, Warner said another danger in letting the Russians and the Chinese gain ascendancy in these technology areas is having authoritarian governments – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and even Myanmar – set the norms for international behavior in cyber and information operations.

Warner has already been highly critical of how U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google have handled emerging issues like misinformation campaigns and cyber threats, and he wants to make clear through agreements with U.S. allies and partners and with industry that the abuse of technology and the internet will have consequences.

Warner said the 2019 defense authorization law took a step in that direction though its directive to the Pentagon to build up its offensive cyber capabilities.

  • Michael D. Woods

    I’ve always thought, as a flyer from the days of control cables and stick-and-throttle, that there’s entirely too much reliance on gee-whiz electronics. Do the guys and generals know what to do when the comm links are down? How do you control a fly-by-wire airplane, or tank, or aim artillery without a computer and when electronics are disrupted? Are there plans that are practiced?

    • RDF

      No. There are not.

    • Duane

      When the control cables broke, the airplane crashed. They weren’t any more resilient than electronics, actually they failed a lot more often than electronics do. With electronics redundancy can be built in, and in general electronic components fail at far lower rates than do any mechanical systems. Today’s high performance fighters, for instance, would be impossible to build and fly without fly by wire – they are inherently unstable when controlled by human hands and minds.

      As for “cyber” – our warfighting systems are not connected to the internet, so “hackers” have little to no opportunity to invade and take over one of our systems.

      • Michael D. Woods

        None ever broke for me or anyone I knew in 20 years as a Marine and Naval Aviator. Airplanes have three axes of control and trim tabs. An airplane is still controllable. I have heard of hardover rudders or elevators and even then there were a few successful recoveries. But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. An electromagnetic storm, perhaps from a nuclear detonation, could disrupt the tiny voltages involved in modern electronics. That’s why the Russians continued to use vacuum tubes long after we moved to chips–their higher voltages and currents were less susceptible to disruption. (The Russians since began to use chips as circuits became more complex and thus too bulky and heavy for tubes.) I’ve also known of total electrical failures in my own squadrons. What do you do then? We could just look out the canopy for a place to land and fly there. So while electronics are highly reliable and improve targeting immeasurably, I’d like to have backup capability. Is there any? I dunno, but I’m afraid there may not be.

        • Duane

          I never flew for the military, so don’t know the stats there … but control cable and/or hydraulic system failures have happened fairly frequently over the decades in private aircraft, from private light aircraft to large body airliners.

          Electrical system failures occur occasionally too. But with modern electronics, system redundancy and battery backups are in service and relatively cheap to install.

          For instance, virtually all new aircraft for the last decade or more have come with flat panel integrated electronic displays for both flight instrumentation and controls, as well as for navigation purposes. Typically separate independent systems are provided for both pilot positions on the panel, plus separate, independent emergency backup systems with battery power that are completely independent of the aircraft’s electrical system – able to operate long enough to get the aircraft safely to the ground.

          And nowadays, with cheap portable GPS nav gear, there is no excuse for a flight crew to not have multiple nav systems with 3-D position data available instantly – even just using a typical smart phone with a nav app. I always flew my Piper with at least three sources of GPS nav data, plus the built in Nav/COMM radios. One can even use a backup artificial horizon on a smart phone or pad computer app should the gyros go down.

  • Ed L

    The Dragon and the Bear are gaining the upper hand over the Eagle. Sometimes I think I read too much Griffin, Poyer and Clancy

  • RDaneel

    Mark Warner? You cannot be serious.

  • RDaneel

    Ad hominem gets blocked.