In what marks a shift in modern geopolitical skirmishes, space has emerged as the foremost theater for gray zone warfare and “space espionage,” mirroring tensions reminiscent of the Cold War.
According to the U.S. Intelligence Community, this contemporary “Space Cold War” is not merely a competition between nations aiming for stellar supremacy but manifests in foreign intelligence services attempting to pilfer vital technologies from U.S. private space firms.
“Foreign intelligence entities recognize the importance of the commercial space industry to the U.S. economy and national security, including the growing dependence of critical infrastructure on space-based assets,” reads a recent warning issued by National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). “They see U.S. space-related innovation and assets as potential threats as well as valuable opportunities to acquire vital technologies and expertise.”
Space plays a vital role in virtually every aspect of modern society. Essential sectors like emergency services, energy, finance, telecommunications, transportation, food, and agriculture depend on space-based technologies.
The U.S. commercial industry has given America a pronounced edge in space innovation, with companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin producing cutting-edge reconnaissance tools, communication satellites, and launch facilities.
In the last ten years, investment in the American space sector ($133 billion) has been nearly twice that of China (79 billion) or the rest of the world combined ($68 billion), according to Space Capital’s most recent quarterly report. However, with this significant success comes increased risks for space espionage, warns the Intelligence community.
NSIC, the FBI, and AFOSI say there are several goals for foreign intelligence services targeting U.S. space firms. These include the theft of intellectual property, “leapfrogging innovation,” “unfair business practices,” and attempts to harm U.S. corporate reputations by “proliferating counterfeit products or falsely authenticated reproductions.”
The recent advisory high-lighted some techniques used by foreign intelligence to target U.S. space firms, including cyber-attacks and external penetrations of supply chains.
Another prominent technique often used by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) involves the investment, acquisition, or establishment of joint ventures with Western companies to gain a foothold in the U.S. industry to commit space espionage.
In 2020, Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance – a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space and Boeing Defense, Space & Security, and longtime space launch provider- revealed that the firm had severed ties with Germany-based robotics firm Kuka after it was discovered the company had been acquired by China’s Midea Group.
“We discovered almost by accident that the key element in that software chain, a key company, had been purchased by a company owned in China,” Bruno said at the 2020 Air and Space Forces Association virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “When we followed up with the FBI and the counterintelligence activity that they provide, we realized, yeah, this is not an actor we need to have inside our factory.”
In January 2023, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Spacety – a Luxembourg-based subsidiary of China’s Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute- for allegedly supplying Russia’s Wagner Group with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery to support combat operations in Ukraine.
Spacety has denied the accusations. However, in March, Luxembourg’s Economy Ministry and the Foreign and European Ministry announced it was suing Spacety for violating European Union regulations on export controls and its alleged ties to Moscow and Beijing.
U.S. officials say space firms are also significant targets for traditional acts of insider espionage.
Speaking with The Debrief, the former Director of Counterintelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), James Olson, described how foreign intelligence services use mediums like social media to recruit potential spies, including people working in the U.S. space industry.
“The Chinese intelligence services do a very scientific and thorough job of mining social media to identify recruitment targets,” explained Olson. “LinkedIn is one of their favorites. Millions of Americans seeking employment post their resumes on LinkedIn.”
“A large number of them are former U.S. military personnel, intelligence officers, or high-tech engineers. To enhance their attractiveness to potential employers, these individuals often list the government clearances they held and the projects they were involved in. This is like a candy store for the Chinese MSS [Ministry of State Security].”
According to Olsen, the standard ploy used by foreign intelligence services, particularly China’s MSS, is to reach out to a potential target expressing interest in establishing a consulting relationship under the guise of being a Chinese institute, university, or think tank.
“An all-expense-paid trip to China is usually offered at the front end. The invitation appears innocuous at first. Once the ‘candidate’ is in China, he or she is wined and dined, flattered, and paid a generous ‘consulting or speaking fee,'” Olson said. “The Chinese then probe aggressively for information to assess how susceptible the target is to an enhanced relationship.”
Officials say the potential targets for foreign spying can include a wide-range of professional backgrounds and expertise. “It’s not just current or former government employees who may be targeted. Private sector employees, academics, and researchers also are of interest to those trying to illegally obtain sensitive information,” a spokesperson for the FBI told The Debrief.
“The Chinese intelligence services know exactly which agencies or corporations and which specialties they are interested in,” added Oson. “This is a wide swath, however, because the Chinese appetite for U.S. sensitive information and technology is voracious.”
In 2019, a Chinese national, Tao Li, was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of conspiring to export “military- and space-grade technology” to China.
In October 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice charged five Russian nationals with attempting to illegally acquire “advanced semiconductors and microprocessors used in fighter aircraft, missile systems, smart munitions, radar, satellites, and other space-based military applications.”
U.S. officials say strategic military goals also guide attempts to target the American space sector.
A telltale sign of how crucial space has become in modern warfare was evident in the opening hours of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, when Russian hackers crippled the American satellite company Viasat, severely damaging Ukrainian military communication capabilities. Russia has also recently intensified efforts to jam SpaceX’s Starlink satellites to cut-off Ukrainian command and control.
American officials say that degrading or disrupting U.S. satellite communications, and space-based remote sensing and imaging capabilities, would be an adversary’s top priority in any future conflict.
In light of these threats, U.S. counterintelligence officials are asking private space companies to increase measures to defend against foreign intelligence infiltration.
Such alerts and the increasingly aggressive stance of adversaries in space technology underline the urgency for the industry and governments to collaborate and defend their space assets. It also serves as a stark reminder of the new-age challenges that transcend beyond our planet.
Regarding any specific threats of space espionage that may have prompted the recent warning, a spokesperson for the Director of National Intelligence said, “We’re issuing the bulletin today because we anticipate growing threats to this burgeoning sector of the U.S. economy.”
Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing typically focuses on defense, national security, the Intelligence Community and topics related to psychology. You can follow Tim on Twitter:@LtTimMcMillan. Tim can be reached by email: email@example.com or through encrypted email:LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com