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Why Would the Pentagon Hire A Russian State Company During a Time of Heightened Tensions?

In case it escaped your notice, the United States is an undeclared war with Russia. It is nothing like the wars of our past. It involves the use of new technology such as social media, new weapons like malware and targets that include our political system and national infrastructure. In a taste of things to come cyber attacks on government networks were a key element of the Russian assault on Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin’s proxy war on Ukraine included a large scale attack on that country’s electric power grid.

Last month the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security formally accused Russia of being behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email system.  These two organizations went even further, declaring that “The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations. . . . These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” There have been reports that Russian hackers have compromised electronic voting systems in several states.

Russian operations in cyberspace are part of a new or at least modern type of conflict, termed hybrid warfare by many observers. This involves the coordinated application of all national instruments of power but particularly non-military capabilities, to achieve national security objectives without the use of traditional military forces or, at a minimum, create favorable conditions for direct military actions.  Hacking the networks and servers of foreign governments and political institutions, penetrating their critical infrastructure, corrupting or siphoning off information in critical databases and conducting strategic reconnaissance against military computer systems are all part of this new way of warfare.

There has been growing pressure by elements within the Obama Administration to take action not merely to defend U.S. networks and institutions but to deter future Russian cyber attacks by offensive actions now. It is believed that the U.S. military is able and prepared to attack Russian networks including those employed by their military and political leadership.

As the war between Russia and the Free World intensifies, why would a part of the Department of Defense accept a Russian state agency to be a prospective subcontractor on one of its networking contracts? I am referring to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) which is responsible for managing virtually all of the Pentagon’s major networks and, in particular, their security.  Among DISA’s many duties now is that of providing an unclassified network that will allow U.S. military personnel deployed overseas to communicate with family and friends in the United States.

DISA recently took over responsibility from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) for providing U.S. troops stationed overseas with the ability to communicate with their families through so-called Internet cafés. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this contract supported thousands of computers and special Internet phones on hundreds of facilities around the world.  Currently, this contract is used to provide Internet café support for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan but could be expanded to include areas such as Eastern Europe as U.S forces start to deploy there on rotation.

What has any of this to do with Russia? When DISA released its request for proposals (RFP) for a new contract for global satellite services in support of these Internet cafés it declared that the contract would be awarded based on a lowest price technically acceptable standard.  For the first time the new contract requires the use of local Iraqi and Afghan service providers and permits the use of Russian satellites, both of which were specifically prohibited by SPAWAR for reasons of security.

The Russian provider of satellite services is the Russian Satellite Communications Company. It is a state-owned company. As such, it can offer prices for its services lower than those possible to any Western satellite company, making them an extremely attractive provider. But its status also means it is controlled, ultimately, by the Kremlin and must be presumed to provide access to the conversations and data passing through its system to Russian intelligence.

Clearly, DISA hopes that by going to local service providers and allowing a Russian company to compete as a provider of satellite communications it can reduce the cost of improving Internet-based communications for U.S. forces overseas even if this comes at the price of diminished personal security for the troops and a risk to national security. While this contract is intended only for unclassified and personal communications, the possibilities for the collection of information useful in either a hybrid or conventional conflict should be obvious. If the network has a Russian state company providing a critical part of the service, the likelihood of the safety and security of our forces being compromised is almost a certainty.

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