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How Do We Ensure Resilient Critical Infrastructure in a Crisis?

By Denise Schiavone

MITRE created a novel approach to identify vulnerabilities in the U.S. transportation network during crisis. This practical, scalable model uses game theory to checkmate opponents in a variety of contested environments. 

In the event of a crisis requiring the U.S. military to deploy, our nation’s transportation network becomes crucial to mission success. Everything from highways to railyards would be used to move troops, equipment, and ammunition to get to locations overseas. 

Vulnerabilities in this network bring huge implications for national security. If a deployment gets delayed, the enemy gains an advantage.

That’s why MITRE developed a novel approach to enable U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) to better identify vulnerabilities in the network—and ensure the resilience of critical infrastructure. 

In a crisis response scenario, NORTHCOM oversees defending the first leg of the journey, moving service members and supplies through the U.S. to points of embarkation. 

But it’s not just a military challenge, explains Michael Martinez, co-creator of MITRE’s approach. “Other government agencies and various industry operators in the transportation network help the Department of Defense make that happen.”

DoD’s current method of identifying network vulnerabilities depends heavily on knowledge and best practices. Subject matter experts create priority listings of where vulnerable components exist generally. But compromises of altogether different components could wreak havoc on logistics and network operations.

MITRE’s data-driven methodology employs game theory to address this gap. It uses a computer model and complex math to go a level deeper—identifying with much greater precision the specific, often-overlooked components at risk.

Striving for Checkmate to Inform Critical Decisions

How exactly does the game theory approach work?

Much like in chess, an open board allows each player to see and respond to various plays. Players move pieces to affect network components—also known as nodes. For example, one move might represent an action to protect a tunnel that military vehicles need to use. 

Unlike chess, this game has three players: the defender, the attacker, and the operator. The defender and the operator play on the same team. The defender plays to protect nodes so the operator (i.e., the military) can move resources through the board as quickly as possible. 

The attacker—some unnamed adversary—makes moves to try to disrupt various nodes. Disruptions can result from physical damage to the network, like a weapon damaging a port, known as a kinetic threat. Or the disruption could result from a non-kinetic threat, like a cyber attack on the network that controls a railyard. 

Whichever type of threat, the adversary’s goal remains the same: the maximum disruption and maximum delay in the deployment.

Looking at the board, the operator sees both the network’s defenses and the attacks on it. They must then decide how to route their forces. As each player take turns, shifting attacks, mounting new defenses, and changing routes, the model creates a slightly different board for the next player to consider. 

“Our model runs thousands of scenarios as each player makes their best move,” says MITRE’s Samuel Billingham, co-creator of the approach. “It ends up considering billions of different combinations and ultimately gives planners a reference point to make those critical decisions.”

The models don’t provide 100% certainty. But at a mere fraction of a percent from theoretically perfect results, they give decision-makers the best possible set of choices.

A Solution That’s Practical, Fast, and Scalable

As promising as this work for NORTHCOM is, it’s only the beginning. 

We’re currently working on a follow-on effort to mitigate the threats our model identifies. That initiative takes the results of the game—for example, “Go defend this vulnerable bridge”—and passes them to another team to determine exactly how an adversary would target that location. 

From there, decision-makers can engage the necessary defenses, ranging from employing an air defense battery, to working with the local sheriff to control traffic around the bridge.

Moreover, the methodology applied to the transportation network can be used in any scenario, like an attack on a communications network. 

We modeled the most-complex transportation infrastructure on Earth—the U.S. transportation system. Now we're looking to scale up to more-global things.

Samuel Billingham, Co-Creator of MITRE’s Game Theory Approach

“The advantage of this approach over subject matter expertise-driven efforts is its scalability,” Billingham says. “We modeled the most-complex transportation infrastructure on Earth—the U.S. transportation system. Now we're looking to scale up to more-global things.”

For example, how much more vulnerable might such infrastructure be in another country, without the same authorities and protections as in the U.S.? What happens to personnel and goods once they hit foreign soil? 

In addition to NORTHCOM, we’re talking with other U.S. combatant commands about potential applications for this model.  

“We developed this practical, fast, and scalable approach for NORTHCOM. But other stakeholders could modify it for different scenarios,” Martinez says. “There's so much potential for this to grow beyond what we’ve already accomplished.” 

To learn more, read Martinez and Billingham’s technical paper “Network Interdiction: A Game Theory Approach.” 

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