Secretive Pentagon research program looks to replace human hackers with AIThe Joint Operations Center inside Fort Meade in Maryland is a cathedral to cyber warfare. Part of a 380,000-square-foot, $520 million complex opened in 2018, the office is the nerve center for both the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency as they do cyber battle. Clusters of civilians and military troops work behind dozens of computer monitors beneath a bank of small chiclet windows dousing the room in light.Three 20-foot-tall screens are mounted on a wall below the windows. On most days, two of them are spitting out a constant feed from a secretive program known as “Project IKE.”The room looks no different than a standard government auditorium, but IKE represents a radical leap forward.If the Joint Operations Center is the physical embodiment of a new era in cyber warfare — the art of using computer code to attack and defend targets ranging from tanks to email servers — IKE is the brains. It tracks every keystroke made by the 200 fighters working on computers below the big screens and churns out predictions about the possibility of success on individual cyber missions. It can automatically run strings of programs and adjusts constantly as it absorbs information.
IKE is a far cry from the prior decade of cyber operations, a period of manual combat that involved the most mundane of tools.
The hope for cyber warfare is that it won’t merely take control of an enemy’s planes and ships but will disable military operations by commandeering the computers that run the machinery, obviating the need for bloodshed. The concept has evolved since the infamous American and Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program with malware known as Stuxnet, which temporarily paralyzed uranium production starting in 2005.