In 2017, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment stationed in Europe received the first batch of the improved or up-gunned—in military parlance—Stryker Dragoon armored vehicles. Commanders on the ground requested them, as the 2nd needed to improve its capabilities against near-peer adversaries in theatre. In Europe, this likely would mean Russia.

The term adversary is typically reserved for real foes. According to the official Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, an “adversary” is “A party acknowledged as potentially hostile to a friendly party and against which the use of force may be envisaged.” However, according to The War Zone, “adversaries” is also a term used by U.S. armed forces to describe “surrogate opponents during an exercise.”

It’s therefore worrisome that according to the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), the Strykers’ onboard systems had certain cyber vulnerabilities, which Russia disrupted on at least one occasion.

The Stryker Dragoon vehicles are recognized under two different designations: the XM1296 or the Infantry Carrier Vehicle – Dragoon (ICV-D). They’re manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems. According to the DOT&E’s report, “Adversaries demonstrated the ability to degrade select capabilities of the ICV-D when operating in a contested cyber environment,” and that, “In most cases, the exploited vulnerabilities pre-date the integration of the lethality upgrades.”

This means the vulnerability didn’t affect the lethality systems and upgrades—including in a new 30mm gun. So it’s possible the vulnerabilities affected the vehicle’s data-sharing, navigation, or digital communications capabilities. Meddling with these systems can have extensive consequences. Since all Strykers use Blue Force tracking systems to distinguish friend from foe, crucial GPS navigation software that can be spoofed raises the possibilities of derailing missions and even worse, fratricide.

Cyber warfare: Did Russia hack the Army's Stryker Dragoon?
U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Ellen C. Brabo, 2nd Cavalry Regiment

The DOT&E’s report doesn’t identify specific adversaries. But, intrusions and disruptions have been felt by the U.S. military as well as several of its NATO allies. Last year, Norway complained about GPS signal disruptions on its border area, forcing pilots fly without GPS. Finland has also complained about similar tactics on its borders.

U.S. Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, stated in April of 2018: “Right now in Syria, we’re in the most aggressive EW [electronic warfare] environment on the planet from our adversaries,” he said. “They’re testing us every day, knocking our communications down, disabling our AC-130s, ect….”

General Thomas doesn’t mention Russia by name in his speech. But there’s only one nation in Syria with those capabilities–either directly or by proxy, using the Syrian government as cover.

An Army spokesperson was quoted in The War Zone: “There is a continual effort to test, evaluate and integrate these advances across all warfighting functions to improve and maintain our readiness.” Adding: “The point of ongoing training opportunities and exercise scenarios like these [that include simulated cyber threats] is to find vulnerabilities, correct and strengthen them before battle, in order to offer our Soldiers the best and safest equipment, practices and procedures to ensure they come home safe to their families and friends.”

While it’s widely reported that smartphones, smart devices and computers were compromised, this latest news can have far-reaching consequences. The use of cyber tactics  by Russia or any other party is a relatively safe option to avoid political or even military retaliation. Attribution is incredibly difficult in these cases. However, if proven, the attack on military systems would prompt significant escalation.

The option to deploy offensive cyber capabilities–at least as deterrence–has been mentioned before this, but not officially implemented against a near-peer adversary. Furthermore, the lack of funding for effective cyber systems and the people to design and implement them doesn’t build confidence for better days.