The chilling uncertainty of “Leave the World Behind,” the Netflix smash hit where a seemingly idyllic family vacation unravels amidst the shadows of an unknown crisis, has left many of us wondering, “How far from fiction is this?”

SPOILER ALERT: This post might change your perspective about the nature of modern warfare. It also contains spoilers about the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, but you’re planning on seeing it, you should continue reading anyway.

As unsettling as these scenarios may be, they are the reality of the cyber and electronic warfare (EW) landscape we live in today, which has major implications for our nation’s critical defense and transportation infrastructures.

The Reality of Electronic Warfare

“Leave the World Behind” focuses on the unsettling reality of modern cyber threats, with the distinction between “traditional” cyber and electronic warfare (EW) left ambiguous — adding to the suspense while also highlighting the complexity of modern warfare. The movie isn’t clear as to the exact means, or multiple methods used, but it’s important to understand the differences between “traditional” cyber warfare and EW.

EW isn’t new. Its roots trace back to the Boer War (1899-1902) in present-day South Africa. The British used searchlights to bounce Morse code signals off clouds, and in response, the Boers used their own searchlights to jam the British signals. During World War II, the British used jamming devices to trick German radars, and the Cold War saw both sides engage in intense electronic espionage and counterintelligence.

Today, EW extends to the wires and circuits that underpin our daily lives. The commercial airliners soaring across continents, the trains we take to work, the energy plants that power our homes, and the weapons systems that keep our nation protected are all at risk. And, with the growing use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), EW will likely become increasingly sophisticated and accessible, such that even non-state actors could potentially wield potent EW tools, making the cyber battlefield more complex and unpredictable than ever.

Fiction vs. Reality: Drawing Parallels Between the Movie and the Real World

How real is “Leave the World Behind?” Its narrative is grounded in the reality of modern cyber threats. And the sudden breakdown of technology and communication eerily echoes real-world events of cyberattacks on critical infrastructures.  Let’s look at major plot points to determine how much of the film is FUD:

These real-world incidents, reminiscent of scenes from “Leave the World Behind,” underscore the pressing need for heightened cybersecurity measures to protect our nation’s critical infrastructure. They remind us that what was once perceived as fiction is now an uncomfortable reality.

Electronic Warfare in the Defense Sector

Electronic warfare (EW) is a crucial component that enables armed forces to disrupt or manipulate enemy communication and weapon systems, playing a vital role in gaining a strategic advantage. But the use of Radio Frequency (RF) technologies in EW means that any industry employing these technologies is potentially vulnerable to cyber-kinetic or cyber-physical attacks, including the United States Defense sector.

Recent examples of EW highlight its timeliness and importance in the modern theater. In November, Ukraine faced sophisticated Russian electronic warfare tactics that included jamming communications and radar systems, severely impacting Ukraine’s military effectiveness. The Russian forces used EW to create confusion and disrupt the coordination of troops, showcasing the decisive role of EW in modern warfare.

Conversely, the United States isn’t just a potential target of EW but also a proactive user. In fact, the U.S. military has been developing ambitious electronic attack concepts aimed at enhancing its ability to conduct offensive EW operations, indicating a recognition of the importance of dominating the electromagnetic spectrum in military confrontations.

These examples underscore the nature of EW in contemporary conflicts: countries like the United States are both potential victims and active users. This dual role highlights the importance of continually evolving EW strategies and technologies to maintain a strategic edge in modern warfare. Today, the tactics, techniques, and procedures used to conduct electronic warfare are quite sophisticated:

The landscape of EW is rapidly evolving, demanding adaptive and sophisticated strategies to safeguard military operations and civilian infrastructure. The integration of EW tactics in modern warfare highlights the need for ongoing research, development, and implementation of effective countermeasures to ensure operational success and protect against potential threats.

Impact on Critical Transportation Infrastructure

Beyond military engagements, EW threats extend to civilian lives, threatening infrastructure like power grids, communication networks, and transportation systems. The vulnerability of these systems to EW has significant implications for civilian safety and national security, necessitating protective strategies that can address the risks effectively.

Crucially, we can’t understate the potential human cost of EW attacks, which extend beyond immediate physical dangers. In our technology-reliant world, an EW attack carries the risk of triggering widespread panic and chaos. These attacks could severely disrupt critical emergency services, evacuation procedures, and rescue operations, intensifying the physical and psychological harm they could cause to the public.

Another unique consequence of EW attacks is the psychological toll on operators who become victims of debilitating stress when navigation and communication systems become unreliable, outcomes become uncertain. The strain of these situations hampers an operator’s ability to manage and trust their equipment, compounding the risks and consequences.

Preparing for the Future: Embracing Technology, Enhancing Defense

While the potential consequences of electronic warfare are sobering, “Leave the World Behind” also reminds us of human resourcefulness and the power of collaboration. By acknowledging the vulnerabilities, leveraging technological advancements, and fostering a culture of cyber awareness, we can turn the tide against EW threats.

Our future is not preordained.

Through collective action and innovative solutions, we can ensure that our critical infrastructure remains secure, and our interconnected world thrives, and doesn’t succumb to the silent weapons of the Gray Zone. A multi-faceted approach is essential to get us there:

By encouraging the responsible use of technology, and prioritizing cybersecurity, we can build a future where the benefits of connectivity outweigh the perils of electronic warfare. We must commit to these principles and actions to ensure the world can endure these complex digital challenges.

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