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Color of war

New graphic novels help Army soldiers visualize emerging threats

An illustration from one of Threatcasting Lab’s new graphic novels Army Cyber Institute

Color of war
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Emerging technological and cyber challenges posed by Russia, China, and North Korea have led the U.S. Army to return to a tried-and-true method for educating soldiers about future warfare threats: comic books.

The Army Cyber Institute (ACI) at West Point has partnered with Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab to produce a series of four science fiction graphic novels that depict some of the emerging threats identified by the ACI.

“Our mission is to prevent strategic surprise for the Army … to really help the Army see what’s coming next,” Lt. Col. Natalie Vanatta, the ACI’s deputy chief of research, told IEEE Spectrum. The books are targeted toward “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?” said Vanatta. She added that the Army has a “history of using graphic novels or fiction to help our workforce understand somewhat intangible concepts.”

The novels—Dark Hammer, Silent Ruin, Engineering a Traitor, and 11.25.2027—written by Threatcasting Lab Director Brian David Johnson, are set in the near future and lay out scenarios in which foreign powers attack by drones, electronic jamming, and cyber manipulation. In Engineering a Traitor, foreign agents psychologically manipulate an Army officer by tampering with his daily internet news feeds and impersonating his family members online.

The novels grew out of a series of threatcasting workshops. “We do two-day threatcasting events where we … model possible threats 10 years in the future,” Johnson told IEEE Spectrum. “Threats to national security, threats to the economy, threats to civilization.”

Johnson refers to his novels as science fiction prototyping, in which narrative and storyline communicate factual material: “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].”

The novels don’t always show U.S. forces emerging as the victors. In Silent Ruin, for example, Russian drones destroy U.S. tank units during a battle in Eastern Europe. The depiction of such setbacks for U.S. forces in the novels was intentional, according to Vanatta.

“We have always been the victor. What happens if this does not continue in the future?” she told the magazine. “What if cyber is potentially a game changer because there is a lower bar to entry for some of our adversaries to get in? … How do we prepare ourselves for that?”

Wastewater surveillance

In February, Cary, N.C., became the first community in the nation to tackle its opioid abuse problems using wastewater epidemiology—also known as “hotspotting.”

The technique, used extensively in Europe, involves analyzing sewage for traces of illegal or legal drugs. While some ingested drugs pass through the body unaltered, others break down into telltale compounds called metabolites, according to the Opioid Research Institute (ORI). In either case, researchers can calculate the original quantity of drugs consumed by measuring wastewater residuals.

Analyzing samples of wastewater from various locations reveals a more accurate picture of a community’s collective drug habits than self-reported surveys, says ORI. The technique also alerts communities to emerging epidemics earlier than emergency-room statistics can.

The Cary project will search for a range of opioids—including heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone—across 10 sampling areas using robots lowered into the sewage stream. —M.C.

Michael Cochrane Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.


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