To Illustrate the Dangers of Cyberwarfare, the Army Is Turning to Sci-fi

Graphic novelettes issued by the U.S. Army Cyber Institute aim to educate soldiers about digital threats

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At first glance, Dark Hammer [PDF] looks a lot like any other science fiction comic book: On the front cover, a drone flies over a river dividing a city with damaged and burning buildings. But this short story in graphic form comes from the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, in New York. The ACI was set up to research cyber challenges, and it acts as a bridge between different defense and intelligence agencies and academic and industry circles.

“Our mission is to prevent strategic surprise for the army…to really help the army see what’s coming next,” explains Lt. Col. Natalie Vanatta, the ACI’s deputy chief of research. Dark Hammer is the first of four recently released comic books set in the near future that depict some of the emerging threats identified by the ACI. The books are free and downloadable by all, but they are primarily intended for “junior soldiers and young officers to get them to think about—well, what if the next 10 years doesn’t look like the last 80?” says Vanatta. The choice of format is unusual but far from unprecedented, she adds. “The army really has a large history of using graphic novels or fiction to help our workforce understand somewhat intangible concepts.”

The books grew out of the ACI’s collaboration with the Threatcasting Lab at Arizona State University, in Tempe. Brian David Johnson is the director of the Threatcasting Lab and Intel’s former in-house futurist. He wrote the books—Dark Hammer, Silent Ruin, Engineering a Traitor, and 11/25/27—with Sandy Winkelman as creative director.

“We do two-day threatcasting events where we…model possible threats 10 years in the future,” Johnson says. “Threats to national security, threats to the economy, threats to civilization. And once we’ve established those, then we look backward and say, ‘How do we disrupt and mitigate those threats?’ ” he says.

The ACI decided they wanted more than just the lab’s traditional reports, Johnson says. “They wanted something that was much more visceral, that could be put in front of an 18-year-old cadet and also in front of a three-star general. They chose a process of mine called science fiction prototyping. You write science fiction stories based on science facts to explore possible futures. We used the threatcasting reports as the science facts, and we developed these four comic books as a way to illustrate these possible threats.”

Johnson explains the difference between science fiction prototyping and just science fiction: In the latter the primary purpose is entertainment, and authors are allowed dramatic license, but in prototyping “we are held rigorously to the facts. It uses a narrative and it uses story as a way to get across the facts. We worked very closely with subject-matter experts and made sure that everything from the way the tanks looked to the insignia to even how the attacks might happen and what their effects might be [was right].”

In the series, U.S. forces don’t end up scoring neat victories, and sometimes they suffer significant losses. In Dark Hammer, for example, U.S. forces hold an invading North Korean army to the north side of the Han River long enough to evacuate trapped civilians from Seoul. In Silent Ruin, U.S. tanks in Eastern Europe are devastated by a Russian hack delivered via battlefield drones.

Depicting such setbacks was a deliberate ploy to counteract complacency in U.S. forces, says Vanatta. “We have always been the victor. What happens if this does not continue in the future? What if cyber is potentially a game changer because there is a lower bar to entry for some of our adversaries to get in? If the game doesn’t drastically change, okay, we’re golden. But what if it does? How do we prepare ourselves for that?”

This article appears in the April 2018 print issue as “Military Manga.”

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, Lt. Col. Natalie Vanatta’s name was misspelled in the original version of this article. The article was updated with the correct spelling on 26 March 2018.

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