Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief. Items we’ll be looking at in this installment include 1) how the Defense Department is hoping to help establish rules to help ensure security for future space operations, 2) how the potential for conflicts in the space domain might be managed in the years to come, and 3) risks that activities of hackers and other cybercriminals might pose in the space domain.
And with that, its time we head on over to the War Room and see what’s happening as far as prospects for one of the key potential battlefields of the future: space.
Guidelines: The Future of Spacefaring
With more and more nations entering the modern race to space, one thing has become increasingly apparent in recent years: the necessity for identifying a few ground rules.
As multiple different space agencies from around the world aim to enhance their efforts in the space domain, the necessity for ensuring safe operations outside of Earth’s atmosphere has become more pressing now than at any time in history. During a recent appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, John D. Hill, the current acting assistant secretary of defense for space policy, testified on May 5 that there are numerous obvious benefits to establishing rules and common guidelines for future space operations that can be shared by all nations.
Chief among these, according to Hill, are “a safer, more sustainable, more stable and more predictable space operating environment for all space operators.”
“Importantly for [the] DOD,” Hill added, “such an operating environment can also facilitate indications and warnings of hostile intentions and hostile acts.”
On the topic of hostile acts, how likely is the prospect that the final frontier will become a future battlefield? Very likely, according to a number of space policy experts.
“I am convinced beyond a scintilla of doubt… It’s going to happen,” according to University of Exeter’s Michael Schmitt, a professor of public international law and a space war expert. In 2018, Schmitt told The Guardian that he believes “It is absolutely inevitable that we will see conflict move into space.”
During his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month, John Hill said that he believes the Defense Department’s aims at setting policies and practices for operations in space may be able to serve as a model for how future cooperation can be achieved between spacefaring nations. This, in addition to providing guidelines in the event that armed conflict should arise.
“DOD models responsible behavior through our routine space operations,” Hill said, “and DOD works carefully to ensure that our space operations are consistent with international measures the United States supports, with relevant domestic and international law, including the law of armed conflict, and the inherent right of self-defense.”
In April, the Atlantic Council published a paper titled “The future of security in space: A thirty-year US strategy”, which examined the potential for future conflicts in space. Among the study’s key points had been the fact that the United States and other nations are moving past the stage of mere exploration of space and transitioning into an era where issues like commerce and security will take on renewed significance. Additionally, many countries that are operating in the space domain are employing new innovative technologies that will likely foment competition both in space, and here on Earth.
According to the Atlantic Council’s findings, the United States can potentially emerge as world leaders through working diligently alongside its allies and partners over the next three decades to help ensure that security can be maintained as more of humankind’s operations involve entry into space. While testifying in early May, Hill expressed very similar sentiments about his vision for what the DOD’s role in such security objectives will be, and how they might be achieved.
“From the DOD perspective, United States leadership and the development of a rules-based order for space activities reap benefits for U.S. civil, commercial, scientific and national security space operators,” Hill said.
“As space activities worldwide become more prolific and more varied, voluntary non-binding international norms, standards and guidelines of responsible behavior can benefit U.S. national security and foster a conducive environment for growing global space activities.”
Hackers in Space
With the recent ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, which significantly reduced gasoline supply in the Eastern United States, it has become increasingly apparent how quickly the efforts of hacking groups can potentially disrupt economies and our way of life in various parts of the world.
The same will likely hold true for future space operations, too.
William Akoto, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Denver, wrote last year that “satellites have the potential to revolutionize many aspects of everyday life – from bringing internet access to remote corners of the globe to monitoring the environment and improving global navigation systems.”
However, as is often the case, the potential for bad usually comes with the good.
“Amid all the fanfare, a critical danger has flown under the radar: the lack of cybersecurity standards and regulations for commercial satellites, in the U.S. and internationally,” Akoto says. “As a scholar who studies cyber conflict, I’m keenly aware that this, coupled with satellites’ complex supply chains and layers of stakeholders, leaves them highly vulnerable to cyberattacks.”
Space Force Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the commander of Space Operations Command, has also acknowledged concerns about how satellites could be targeted by hacking groups in the future, which further complicates efforts toward ensuring security in space in the years ahead.
Other concerns pertaining to the operations of satellites involve countries like China, which have demonstrated their anti-satellite technologies in recent years.
“We continue to see the Chinese building satellites like the Shijian 17, which is a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm that could be used to grapple U.S. or allied satellites,” Whiting recently said. “We know they have multiple ground laser systems which could blind or damage our satellite systems.”
Similar technologies have also been demonstrated by Russia in recent years, Whiting added. “Russia has several ground-based lasers that can jam or blind our satellites,” he says, “and it’s probable [that] they’ll field more later this decade.”
According to Whiting, “Russia is a sophisticated space actor, so they must have known what they were doing, and obviously we do not support weapons tests near our satellites,” Whiting was quoted saying in a recent Department of Defense news release.
Although prepared for the eventuality of problems that might emerge, the United States hopes to be able to stave off conflicts in the space domain in the years ahead. Through the proper implementation of rules and guidelines for safe and mutually beneficial operations in space between various nations, the Defense Department has conveyed that it aspires to help establish protocols through which the United States can remain global leaders, and help to ensure that space remains a safe environment as all of the countries that will be carrying out operations there.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, recently announced the successful demonstration of an advanced AI-enabled model capable of detecting sarcasm in textual communications.