The control over software is the leverage of the US strategy of expansion in the Far East. This strategy includes the sale, in anti-Chinese function, of armaments to countries in the Indo-Pacific area qualified as “like-minded partners” or “allies” also in the absence of formalisation in treaties such as, for example, that of NATO by Andrea Monti
The software has become a central element of national security protection (or vulnerability) because the functioning of the equipment and systems that make a country’s network work depends on it. Its robustness, however, besides being the first line of defence in technical terms, is also a very efficient geopolitical control tool.
Selling equipment to a “friendly” country without giving it control over the software means putting a noose around its neck. Also, the Italian government, better late than ever, understood it and tried to limit such kind of strategy with the clumsy and ineffective Conte-Huawei decree. However, the decree only deals with a single Chinese big-tech firm and not with the rest of the software used in Italy and by Italy in the perimeter of critical infrastructures. As in an old taps advertisement, the repairman plugs a hole, but many others open and the water still spurts.
Recent developments in US policy in the sale of arms to India and other countries in the area show the consequences of using software without really being able to control it.
The stalemate of US policy in the Indo-Pacific area
Faced with developments that are not as positive as one would have expected and even the prospect of failure, the USA is playing the arms sales card to strengthen control over countries that are already “customers” and to establish new links based on technological dependence.
Thus, the Trump administration has authorised the supply to Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea of anti-missile systems, spy aircraft, combat aircraft and attack helicopters.
At the same time, the USA is trying to break the traditional military supply relationship between Russia and India, trying to put American technology alongside Russian one in the Indian defence apparatus. This problem is complex (and probably unsolvable) because of the difficulties of making different systems “talk” and the inevitable reciprocal leaks of information. It is not a new problem, however, given the recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, which resulted in the purchase of the S-400 anti-missile system, with great discord of the USA which had to watch helplessly the purchase, announced on 23 August 2020, of a second lot.
The strategic use of armaments supply
Traditionally, the sale of arms is a way to “strengthen” ties between countries linked by good diplomatic relations, but it is also, and above all, a way to establish de facto control over the military apparatus of the client state. This strategy is all the more valid, the more sophisticated the technology that makes the weapons systems work, not only for the control that the manufacturing country exercises over logistics, personnel training and platform maintenance, but above all for the extreme dependence of these systems on computer components. In the case of the F-35s that happens, for example, with the ALIS – Autonomous Logistics Information System platform.
Like the priests of the “atomic churches” of the Foundation imagined by Isaac Asimov, therefore, those who control not so much the weapons as what makes them work acquire real power over its customers. Japan has called into question the projects connected to the purchase of American armaments in order to guarantee itself greater independence in the maintenance and modification of the weapons’ platforms.
On the other hand, it is quite clear that it is not the sale of a few naval units or a small flock of helicopters that strengthens the defensive apparatus of a small country. The real advantage for the seller country is the availability of support points, or even bases, in case the need for tactical deployment in those areas arises.
A more structural cause in US policy towards China?
These considerations also explain the individual attention that the Trump administration pays to the IT and in particular to the hardware components industry.
If a country builds an essential part of the military pieces of equipment in a “not friendly-although-not-overtly-hostile” country, the security chain would have a potential weak link. Consequently, strict control over intellectual and industrial property rights over the IT components used not only in weapons systems but also in the computers and networks in which these systems are part, is essential.
Historical evidence of the relevance of the issue is the complicated issue of the joint development by Japan and the USA of the F-3/F-X, the successor to the Mistubishi F-2, the current multi-role fighter in the Japanese Air Force.
Japan intends to develop, if not autonomously, at least with a leading role in a new combat platform to enter into service from 2035. The USA, which, by way of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing, participate to the tender to co-realise the new platform, have declared that they are willing to share confidential information on the operation of the software that does the F-35s work if Japan agrees to incorporate these programs into the command and control system of its new fighter.
The practical result of such a choice would mean that the US, through the hybridisation of the F-35 software, would gain extra control over the operation of the Japanese platform which, as might be expected, would not be fully independent in its operation.
Briefly: the software, perhaps more than spare parts and physical assistance, becomes the lever of control over “satellite” or “like-minded partner” states, without even the need to intervene in the logistics chain to obtain adherence to massacres and tactics, or political positions.
If this is true, then the US attack against Huawei should be seen in a much broader context than the generic narrative about “national security threats” arising from the use of Chinese 5G infrastructure. For the US, protecting intellectual property in the IT sector so that it can also become an instrument of geopolitical influence is of central importance to everyone, including the European Union.