How China Is Digitally Challenging US Central Command

U.S. Marine Corps / Staff Sgt. Chad Simon

The Pentagon may have “CENTCOM fatigue,” but Beijing is pushing into the Middle East, warns the command’s communications chief.

China aims to become the Middle East’s “digital arbiter” by building cheap data networks and providing surveillance software to autocratic regimes—all in a bid to boost its regional influence, the U.S. military’s top communications official in the region said Tuesday. 

“These are the things from an IT standpoint, that provide the damage to us in this region,” said Brig. Gen. Tina Boyd, the director of command and control, communications, and computer systems for U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM. 

Boyd said that while that doesn’t present a direct military threat, it’s not something that the United States military can afford to ignore, especially given China’s ability to use commercial and personal data to train AI and machine learning tools. 

“The People's Republic of China would love to have access to all of this data. And of course, if they own the infrastructure, they will certainly be able to have it,” she said on Tuesday at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s annual DODIIS conference.

For two years, Boyd and her CENTCOM team have been working on their response: a new secure network to help U.S. security partners link up around the world. It will go live in January. 

“We started it because again—speed to market—we had to get something done. And so we took it upon ourselves to figure out: How can we build out this partner network that will be able to encompass all of the [bilateral agreements] and the one [multilateral agreements] that we have in the theater, get everybody on the same network, and get them communicating.”

More importantly, the network aligns with the Defense Department’s new emphasis on zero-trust security—meaning that every computer on the network is assumed to be insecure. Individual users have to show that they’re allowed to be there through the use of digital credentials, two-factor authentication, and other means. All this improves security and makes it easier for more partners to communicate.

“What that means at this point is that a British national with British credentials” will be able to login from England “and we will be able to accept their identity and allow them to access,” she said.  “So that's a big step forward. We've been talking about this for ages. We've been talking about this since the early 2000s, interoperability and integration of reporting. And so we're really starting to get some traction on this.” 

Boyd said that it could provide a model for other combatant commands that are looking to make their own zero-trust communication network. Moreover, it helps to lay the foundation for the Defense Department’s vision for joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2. 

She said CENTCOM got a taste of how high the data needs will be for future operations as U.S. forces hastily evacuated from Afghanistan in August. 

“Demand for data levels above [satellite communications] were tremendous and they were increasing by the minute. Having that data available and accessible throughout the whole, I'll call it chain of custody, is extremely helpful in those decisions being made at each layer of the organization,” she said. “We had a contingency response force, the 82nd Airborne Division down on the ground. We had all the [sensor data] from from all the service components and then then we had the highest level of government watching play by play. So JADC2 will give us that data throughout that chain and help us deconflict and make better decisions based upon everybody's information that's being provided into the system.” 

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