America's opponents seek to expose it

Abandoned equipment in Afghanistan reveals US military secrets

  • Washington's rivals may discover the weaknesses of American technology.

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  • American planes are equipped with very modern communication equipment.

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China is likely to be the ultimate winner in the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

The planes and armored vehicles that were left behind when the US forces withdrew will give China, through its enthusiastic partners (the Taliban), a wide window on US military equipment, and benefit from that in its most important war tools.

The Chinese military is expected to use this windfall booty to create and export a new generation of weapons and tactics tailored to American vulnerabilities, to client states, experts said, who have spent years building and testing some of the equipment now controlled by the Taliban.

To understand the extent of the potential loss for the United States, it is necessary to look beyond the headlines predicting the "Taliban" air force.

Consider, instead, the relatively rudimentary parts of command, control, and communication equipment found in vehicles the United States has left behind in barracks and airports.

"The only reason we don't see more attacks is because there are walls of secrecy around these systems," said Josh Lospinoso, CEO of cybersecurity firm Shift5. The timeline for the ability to build electronic weapons to attack them.

Lospinoso spent 10 years in the US Army conducting penetration tests against radios, microcomputers, and other information technology equipment commonly deployed in Afghanistan.

Including radios and communications equipment, aboard the Afghan Air Force C-130 transport plane, which was captured by the Taliban.

The Pentagon confirmed that the equipment was faulty;

But if any remain on the plane, there will be a desire with time and a will to understand how the equipment works.

"We now have some or all of the electronic components on this system, and it's an experimental lab," Lospinoso said. "It's a playground to build, test, and replicate cyberattacks, and the opponent may have had a really hard time getting physical copies of the equipment."

The expert asserts that it has become a playing field for them (the opponents) to develop attacks against similar elements.

Giorgina Shea, who spent five years at Miter helping the Pentagon research and test new technologies, said leaving key equipment to the Taliban "exposes everything we do in the United States, including Defense Department action plans, how We set things up, and how do we protect the equipment,” she explained, “It gives them unlimited time to get into vulnerabilities, which we might not be aware of, and find them in a Humvee, for example.”

countermeasures

Of particular concern is the electronic countermeasures equipment, used to detect explosive devices.

"Imagine the research and development efforts that went into developing electronic countermeasures devices, which were designed to counter IEDs," said Peter Christensen, former director of the US Army's National Electronic Group.

He continued, "Now, our enemies have this equipment, and they will have the software and hardware that is compatible with this system."

Shea said that equipment that had been "demilitarised" or "become inoperable," as US officials described, including aircraft and vehicles left in Afghanistan, could still reveal secrets. This equipment was assumed that we would have gates and guards to protect it, and when it was developed, no one thought the Chinese would get it in their electronic lab, dissect it, and disassemble it.”

"Once the attacker actually takes control of the device, little can prevent him from discovering weaknesses in it, and there are always weaknesses," Shea said.

Under current acquisition practices, most new defense equipment is not tested for vulnerabilities, until late in the design process.

Testers often receive a very short time for comprehensive testing.

Sometimes they only get two weeks, Shea says, and yet "they always find a weakness."

Regardless of previous tests conducted, American experts often find weaknesses.

There are not enough resources for testing equipment to understand all vulnerabilities.

"Plans to fix newly discovered vulnerabilities have often been inconsistent or inadequate," Christensen said, and Lospinoso, who has spent years running such tests for the military, is still doing penetration testing for the US military as a contractor.

He says a smart hacker can usually find useful vulnerabilities in devices "within hours".

And when a network attack disables a radio or truck, troops are generally not trained to do anything about it.

They may not even realize they have been attacked, and the attack may cause lifetime or maintenance issues.

devastating effect

“Every time we launch a (test) attack on a system, or add a child component, it can have a really devastating effect, potentially causing the loss of an asset,” Lospinoso says.

And in 2017, the Government Accountability Office highlighted many of these concerns in a scathing report.

Highlighting weaknesses in the military's information network, McDonnell Ulch, CEO and chief analyst at Philax Analytics, said abandoned vehicles and equipment would help China understand how US forces work with friendly militaries.

“If you were to take all the technology that is currently deployed in Afghanistan by the United States, and make an assessment of that, you have a point in time and a point of reference for the status quo,” Ulch said.

She knew what technology was used, how much it cost, and what she could do, and she knew it was going to a developing country.”

The expert said that China can use the knowledge to develop its own weapons and tactics, but also to export weapons that have an advantage.

The Taliban highlighted their nascent partnership with China as perhaps the movement's most important foreign diplomatic effort.

Meanwhile, China has already begun providing aid to the new regime in Kabul.

Whatever weaknesses China discovers, Lospinoso said, they are likely to endanger US forces for years to come.

It's unlikely that experts in the US military will be able to re-engineer and reprogram all the different systems with dangerous cyber-vulnerabilities, according to Lospenso. "We've spent billions of dollars on fundamentally flawed weapons systems."

Expert Georgina Shea explained that once an attacker actually takes control of the device, little can prevent him from discovering weaknesses in it, and there are always weaknesses.

Aircraft and equipment left by the US army after the withdrawal:

MD-530 helicopters, for reconnaissance and attack.

27 All-terrain Humvee military vehicles.

A-29 light attack aircraft.

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