Think Tank (2/2023)
(L-R) Dr Nicolas Mazzucchi, Dr Collin Koh
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Challenges in Cyber and Digital Transition for Navies
22 Mar 2023

In an RSIS Seminar held on 22 March 2023, Dr Nicolas Mazzucchi, Research Director at the French Navy Center for Strategic Studies, expounded on digital and cyber as emerging security challenges in the maritime domain. He attributed these to a few global trends. Firstly, digital transformation across the world, and secondly; at the strategic level; the end of the “sea-basing era”. The digitalization of the maritime domain, according to Dr Mazzucchi, is deemed to be a nascent development. Traditionally speaking, a ship is an “isolated” entity when underway and it could hitherto only rely on mostly satellite communications. However, in the future, the advent of 5G technology could change this.

Dr Mazzucchi cautioned that this could also correspondingly raise the vulnerability of seagoing vessels to digital and cyber attacks. Newbuild naval vessels can be designed from scratch to incorporate digital and cyber security features, but existing platforms have to be upgraded. Likewise, naval professional education and training have to be overhauled to take into account such changes to the naval operating environment. The cyber domain, according to Dr Mazzucchi, does not look poised to supplant navies’ continued preference to tap kinetic force for military operations. Cyber will form part of the evolving information and electronic warfare repertoire in future naval warfare, either as “soft kill” systems, particularly against unmanned or autonomous systems, or disruption of adversarial naval actions. Yet the maritime cyber domain looks set to create what Dr Mazzucchi calls a “quasi-state of warfare at sea,” which in times of troubled peace, can be leveraged as a tool for political signaling.

The maritime cyber domain remains fraught with challenges in regulatory mechanisms and application of deterrence concepts. Yet the HMS Defender incident in the Black Sea, where the ship was hit by an alleged Russian spoofing of its automatic identification system back in mid-2021, shows that while it is almost impossible to deter cyber attacks at sea, it is increasingly more pertinent for navies to beef up relevant defenses against such threats.

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