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$4 million research initiative aims to protect military information systems

The Physical Science Laboratory at New Mexico State University is leading a research project to develop new technologies for protecting battlefield information systems.

Michael Coombs, principal investigator on the Physical Science Laboratory's Decision-Related Structures program, is developing computer simulations that will help analyze complex interactions in battlefield situations. (NMSU photo by Meghann Dallin)

"The real battlefield of the future is going to be an information battlefield, and a crucial element will be the extent to which you can protect your own information systems and compromise the enemy's," said PSL Director Donald Birx.

PSL is working with the Army Research Laboratory's Survivability/Lethality Analysis Directorate (SLAD) at White Sands Missile Range on the $4 million federally funded project. The major objectives are to develop tools to assess the vulnerabilities of U.S. battlefield information systems, understand how system vulnerabilities affect the command decision structure, and establish measures to protect the systems from attack.

The work holds great potential for non-military applications as well, Birx said. "If you can defend a battlefield network, you can defend a banking network or a transportation network."

The information operations (IO) initiative draws on the expertise of PSL researchers, who have established an IO laboratory at PSL, and NMSU faculty members in mathematics and engineering. The university recently began offering information operations as an area of academic specialization for master's students in electrical and computer engineering.

The project also is expected to take advantage of other high-technology resources along the Rio Grande Corridor, including Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories and companies such as Science Applications International Inc., which recently opened an office in PSL's building to work jointly with the laboratory on projects.

"New Mexico has a strong technical foundation in this kind of expertise," Birx said.

The expertise is important because the IO challenge is far more complicated than protecting a computer network from hackers, he said. When computer networks, communication systems, computerized weapons and the human element are combined in the digitized battlefield, "you get what is called an emergent system, with characteristics that emerge over time and change constantly," Birx said.

Protecting such a system from attack, or responding effectively when an attack occurs, requires first of all understanding the structure of the system and its relationship to behavior. In the first phase of the project, researchers in PSL's information operations laboratory are developing computer simulation software for modeling various aspects of a battlefield environment -- including the human element.

"Simulations are required because these environments are inherently non-linear and possibly chaotic, meaning small and seemingly unrelated events can have large and unpredictable impacts on overall behavior," Birx said. "The technologies being developed, in combination with computer simulations, will allow us to narrow down to a manageable number of scenarios the likely or most probable outcomes."

Part of the complex problem in information operations arises when human participants and networked computer systems interact in ways that hinder each other, Birx said. "When an attack on our battlefield decision structure occurs, it is critical that we understand the effects and implications so that we respond effectively."

The project, known as a Decision-Related Structures program, will help battlefield commanders and system network managers analyze complex situations, determine how things go wrong, and devise measures for avoiding problems and responding effectively when they do occur.

"This program is part of the new era of military conflict, with offensive and defensive IO capabilities at its center," said Jack Wade, director of SLAD. "SLAD and NMSU are playing a leading role through the Decision-Related Structures initiative."