Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Instruments of Darkness

Recently, completely by accident, I picked up a copy of Alfred Price's Instruments of Darkness: The History of Electronic Warfare which (in the main) tells the story of the competitive development of radar capability during World War Two.   (It does extend into the 1960's but you can tell his heart really wasn't in the telling of the events in the later years.)

Regardless, it is an absolutely fantastic book that is as gripping as any novel - despite the subject matter being basically the history of the development of techniques for electronic detection and deception.  One of the elements that was interesting for me was just how relevant some of this story was to the world of cyber-security in the twenty-first century.  (I admit this could be just my way of trying to pretend that the time spent reading it really was effective research, but I don't think so.)

Anyway, some of the key messages:


  1. There are no absolute victories. At best, the developments provided a temporary advantage in a see-saw battle of measures and counter-measures.   The development of new solutions had to be constant.
  2. A combination of offensive and defensive measures were required.
  3. Sometimes your own capabilities could be used against you - for example signals emitted by electronic counter-measures on some fighters were used to track those fighters.
  4. Not all electronic measures were countered electronically - sometimes a change of physical tactics was the most effective response (night fighters infiltrating the bomber stream for example).  
  5. Electronic warfare was very much hybrid warfare with kinetic attacks on radar stations and the like.
  6. Technical skills combined with management that got the job done was a major source of differentiation.
  7. Intelligence regarding the enemy's capability was fundamental to success, including information from PoWs, acquisition of enemy equipment (hint: never put secret kit in a location with easy access for a commando raid), creative interpretation of seemingly meaningless breadcrumbs of data that helped provide a strategic picture.
  8. There were mistakes, dead ends, ideas that should  have worked but didn't - and ideas that should not have worked but did!  It was not a predictable environment and luck plays a part.
  9. Getting it wrong was very costly.



I guess I shouldn't be surprised at some of the similarities as cyber is really the mutant child of electronic warfare and information warfare so it should have some of the same characteristics, but I did find it bizarre that there were even competitions to generate new ideas and to get new developments moving (not unlike some of what is being done today for cyber).

I must admit though that in general I am not keen on extrapolating from history for an understanding of cyber issues, but in this case I will make an exception.
(Cross posted from my DPhil blog as it seems relevant.)

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