The growing influence of blockchain in defence

More organisations across the world are looking to blockchain in defence as the next step towards modernisation of the armed forces.

Countries across are looking to blockchain in defence as a way of modernising and protecting systems. The technology came about along with cryptocurrency as a means of keeping track of transactions and functions through recording information that is shared across all networks rather than in a central database. This innovation allowed for a decentralised currency but has also become attractive to defence organisations due to its capacity for transparency and security. It uses cryptography to protect cryptoassets through public and private keys, combinations of numbers and letters that are more secure than standard passwords. These protect the identities of users, making it more difficult for information to be stolen or compromised. A blockchain can’t be hacked, as the data is decentralised. At a time when high-profile cyber attacks are becoming a bigger concern for public and private organisations, many are looking to blockchain as a way of securely storing data.

The technology allows for information to be made available to a select number of people. Specific details including geographic details can be protected and made available only through keys owned and shared by the party that originally input the data. Because there is no central database, it is virtually impossible to tamper with the information stored in the blockchain as there is no single entry point. The information cannot be altered once it has been input and through smart contacts, the person or group in charge of the information can easily alter who can and can’t access it. With the increasing use of the Internet of Things (IoT) technology in defence, the risk factor for cyber-attacks has become larger. More countries are investing in hacking technology as part of their defence ability, and with the increasing sophistication of malware, cybersecurity has become more important. Blockchain can better protect exchanges between IoT devices, securing data transmissions in real-time between systems that can be miles away from each other, with no central processor analysing the data being sent. Data, including personal information, can be almost impossible to compromise if it is stored in a network rather in a centralised base. The US DOD is currently looking to blockchain as a means of improving cybersecurity, sending important information and messages.

Blockchain can also be a useful asset to manufacturing and supply chain logistics. Because data cannot be changed, creating standard plans for defence equipment becomes easier and they can be shared across all networks quickly. With additive manufacturing on the rise, parts could be ordered and created quickly through 3D printing plans stored in the blockchain. The process can be followed in detail and any deviation or damage can be quickly seen and assessed. In larger-scale manufacturing, the number of items manufactured and details such as serial numbers can be easily logged. Sale and distribution can also be easily recorded through units of data available across the entire network, creating permanent records of transfers as well as information such as what equipment, maintenance, and assemblage are required. This creates greater transparency within the supply chain. Every transaction will be accessible to all parties, making it quicker and easier to keep track of sales and the legality of products. Maintenance can also be helped by blockchain. Currently, data on aircraft history including components, condition, and flights, is usually collected manually and stored on multiple systems under different partners. Through blockchain, there can be a record of every part, when it was installed, what repairs it required, the location, and its inspection results. This could be a far less expensive way of conducting maintenance and prevent unplanned repairs across the fleet.

Many defence organisations are seeking blockchain as a means of communicating securely. The European Defence Agency is looking to blockchain as a way of securing communications as part of its Overarching Strategic Research Agenda (OSRA). They are also seeking blockchain as a means of running IoT, cyber defence, logistics support, and networks. Blockchain allows for fast communication as information is distributed across the entire network, including devices like smartphones, and if a connection is disrupted it can be easily sent through another channel. For example, if a satellite signal is disrupted a message can be sent through radio, telephone, or even as a physical barcode. The cryptographic keys can then be used to access the message. It makes it much more difficult for communication systems to be attacked or messages to be compromised. Networks will operate even if a large section becomes disrupted and messages cannot be altered or accessed by parties without approval.

Blockchain is one of the ways the European Defence Agency is looking into to control drones. In 2018, the EDA awarded Clover Technologies a prize for multi-device coordination. The Madrid-based firm created a blockchain platform to control multiple robots with added security. The Internet of Things has played a large part in defence interest in the technology. Blockchain allows for information between IoT devices to be exchanged quickly and the decentralised nature of the technology means that information will still be available if one or more devices are offline. Information such as aircraft configuration can be shared quickly across all networks, saving time and simplifying important information. In the UK, blockchain has been explored as a way of digitising departments including HM Land Registry and financial services. Some of the UK’s blockchain ambitions in defence have been put on hold pending the outcome of the UK leaving the European Union.

Obstacles still stand in the way of blockchain becoming a bigger part of defence technology. It remains a new technology and many people across the defence industry still require education in order to use it, according to the EU Agency for Cybersecurity. Current centralised management organisations, including banks, would have to relinquish control on data, which could lead to a conflict of interest. Uncertainty around the technology and how it will be used make it difficult to introduce regulations and financial guides. German politician Jacob von Weiszaecker has recommended that the Europan Commission create a task force to monitor and legislate the technology. There is also currently a significant expense associated with maintaining blockchain systems, existing frameworks have to be updated to allow for blockchain and the EU Parliamentary Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs have agreed that regulating blockchain is not an immediate priority. It is also thought that some individuals within defence may have privacy concerns over their information being strongly linked to blockchain information networks.

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