Welcome to the Age of Space and Cyber Warfare

By Col. M. V. "Coyote" Smith
Friday, October 4th, 2013 @ 12:52AM

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Below is Col. “Coyote” Smith’s presentation from the American Center for Democracy’s symposium on “Energy, Space and Cyber Security-Current and Future Threats,” on September 30, 2013. Col. Smith’s enlightening and sobering presentation highlights the threats and offers guidelines to prevent and reduce them.


“I’m Colonel-Doctor ‘Coyote’ Smith, a professor of strategic space and cyber studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Air University on Maxwell Air Force Base in beautiful Montgomery, Alabama.  Our school, ‘SAASS’ as we call it, is where our Air Force educates a small, hand-picked student body of majors and lieutenant colonels at the masters- and PhD-levels to serve as strategists within our services.

I must thank Rachel Ehrenfeld and the American Center for Democracy for hosting this Washington Roundtable on this critical set of issues that challenge American, allied, and global security.  It is an honour for me to speak to this gathering of accomplished and distinguished people, especially appearing along side William Scott and William Forstchen, authors of two of the most popular books in our courses on space and cyber, respectively.  The lessons I learn here from all of you will immediately inform our curriculum at SAASS and Air University as we endeavour to sharpen the minds of our warfighters to meet the challenges of our uncertain future.

I must point out that due to the magic of sequestration that I am here on leave today and am enjoying my personal time greatly.  As such, I am not representing the Air Force or any part of the US government in any way.  The observations and opinions that I provide here are my own and do not represent necessarily the official positions or policies of the US government-although the speaker asserts that they ought to be!

All of the information I will provide here is unclassified.  My sources are discoverable on the open Internet and in public forums.  I encourage all of you to fact check me.  Any misrepresentations I might make are my fault entirely.

Please, feel free to point out any such mistakes.

My presentation is titled, “Welcome to the Age of Space and Cyber Warfare.”  It is a long overdue welcome, as we have been living in the age of space and cyber warfare for over 30 years.  It has not received much attention, because it takes place out-of-sight and therefore out-of-mind.  Real space warfare and the fact that it has been underway for decades is almost beyond the public’s imagination.

In fact the common conception of space warfare is grossly misrepresented in science fantasy novels, movies, TV shows, and propelled even further by outlandish claims by the arms control community that space warfare necessarily involves blowing-up satellites in orbit and creating cascading fields of debris.  They point to the so-called Chinese anti-satellite test of 2007 as an example of a space weapon, but such a weapon is more likely a missile defense system than an anti-satellite weapon.  Why do we think this?  Because soldiers are smart enough not to plant a mine field inside their own camp.  Sailors know enough not to randomly mine their own harbors.  Likewise space professionals, in all countries who reply on space even a little bit, know enough not to create space debris that could ruin for decades their access to space and that of everyone else.  Those countries that do not rely on space to any extent are unlikely to master the technology or be able to afford destructive CounterSpace weapons.  The process of developing rockets, satellite interceptors, and fielding and sustaining such systems costs billions of dollars.  There are exponentially cheaper options, such as jammers, that are far more reliable and can be employed with a high degree of deniability in many circumstances.  Such is the nature of space warfare.

When I say warfare, I am speaking in the classical Western Clauswitzian sense of warfare, which is the use of martial engagement for political purpose.  Satellites have been engaged for years for political purpose to deny or disrupt adversaries’ space-based sensors from collecting certain information and routing that and other data to their users.  Satellites are little more than computers placed in orbit with very long and very vulnerable wifi-like data links to ground stations and users.

Instead of blowing-up satellites and creating unwanted space debris with rockets and interceptors, we are witnessing a proliferation of ground-based jammers, lasers, data insertion and data corruption devices and techniques, as well as other directed energy weapons that are exceedingly cheap and able to be executed covertly.  In fact, our satellites-American and allied-experience interference on a regular basis, but we often find it difficult to attribute the interference to the precise actor.  In part this is because nations routinely probe the capabilities of potential adversaries-think of Soviet and now Russian bombers testing our air defenses-but the entry cost for jamming a satellite is so low and the intelligence for doing so is available on the Internet, that we are witnessing non-government organizations and even individuals interfering with satellite operations.  However, the US and other nations who experience disruptions from interference with our space systems seldom speak out about it even when confirmed and attributed because the tendency is to deny attackers intelligence about the effect of their attacks.  An exception to this came a few years ago when the director of the National Reconnaissance Office complained publicly about Chinese lasers engaging our imagery satellites.  Enough, was enough.

At a 2011 conference in Luxembourg hosted by the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies, a representative from the United Nations International Telegraphic Union reported that his organization receives over 200 satellite frequency interference complaints daily.  In their estimation perhaps only 7 percent of such complaints are the result of intentional jamming or other interference.  That means there are over 14 cases of space warfare or criminal interference occurring daily-that get reported.

Consider the following examples that have been reported in the news within the last decade.  The Chinese dissident group Falun Gong actually overpowered a state-owned satellite and broadcast their messages over the top of the authorized signal.  The former Libyan government jammed British satellite broadcasting of offensive programming into their country.  Iran has become a powerhouse in this area, not only jamming satellite broadcasts of Western news into their region regularly, but they have also engaged American and other satellites to jam satellite data links used to command remotely piloted vehicles in the Middle East.  The Iranians even went so far as to send a small team of people to Cuba secretly to jam American satellite data links.  It took a concerted effort between the US and Cuba to figure out the situation and for Cuba to eject the perpetrators diplomatically.  This is the face of space warfare.  Not the grandiose visions of blowing things up in space.

Space warfare is not executed for its own purpose.  It is done because a contest of wills exists on Earth between two or more polities or non-state actors.  It is done to prevent flows of information, in a non-lethal, and non-damaging manner, which is the criteria required in the Law of Armed Conflict.  The Law of Armed Conflict places a moral burden on nation-states to achieve their objectives in a manner that prevents loss of life, undue human suffering, or damage to property.  To date, space warfare and cyber warfare are machine-on-machine engagements that meet or exceed the international community’s requirements for morality in warfare.  The alternative is blowing up ground stations and the users of information-people and property.  In short, negating satellites saves lives.

What we think of today as cyber warfare has really evolved out of space warfare.  As personal computers, the Internet, and the various means of connecting them became prolific on Earth in recent years, the various warfare techniques used in space-and other terrestrial forms of electronic warfare–migrated to cyber.  We are all very familiar with examples of cyber warfare.  Examples include the Russian use of cyber warfare against Georgia in their recent conflict to essentially put down Georgian information networks, their command and control systems, along with the Internet and most everything connected to it.  What makes this example particularly interesting was how the Russians went about it.  They simply encouraged private hactivists to engage Georgian cyber systems.  It was a free-for-all.  This resulted in a very effective removal of Georgia from the grid, with very little Russian investment in this success.

Cyber warfare is clear in our minds, but the Russian example points to another interesting phenomenon that we are seeing in space and cyber warfare.  We find ourselves living in the age of the super-empowered individual.  Space and cyber capabilities that only nation-states possessed even as late as a few years ago now reside within the grasp of anyone with access to the internet-for intelligence, operational command-and-control, and execution of various cyber techniques that can destroy, degrade, deny, disrupt, or deceive targeted equipment and the services they provide.

The relationships between space and cyber warfare are relatively clear, and this explains, partly, why the Air Force has vested its space and cyber assets in a single major command.  Both space and cyber warfare present us with similar problems.  First, attacks can be exceptionally difficult to detect.  Systems can fail or have glitches for any number of reasons.  Detecting an intentional attack is made even more difficult if the attack occurred months or even years earlier when some line of malicious code was inserted into software waiting to time-out or for some signal to be given.  This brings us to the second big problem once an attack has been detected; attributing it correctly to the actual aggressor-knowing full well that the aggressor might do everything in its power to implicate an innocent party.  Iran’s covert use of Cuban soil is just one example of what is seen commonly.

We in the business of space and cyber strategy speak about the Probability of Detection and the Probability of Attribution…and the Probability of Retribution as well.  The Probability of Retribution is characterization of likelihood, ways, and means of an adversary’s response for being attacked.  This is critical and tricky because the culture and context of each adversary we face will be different, just as America responds differently at different times to different threats and attacks. These are points upon which we are concentrating a great deal of energy.

This is of increasing importance as we “pivot” our national security attention more towards the East.  Asian Strategy is deeply informed by the writings of the ancient theorist, Sun Tzu, who twenty-six centuries ago wrote that “all warfare is based on deception,” in his treatise, The Art of War.  Things will not be so clear in Asia as they have been in Europe.

While many speak of developing a deterrence strategy to prevent Chinese and others from attacking our space systems, we risk being misled by false assumptions promulgated by the members of the arms control community.  Many of them assert vociferously at every opportunity that space has always been a peaceful sanctuary and that any interference with our satellites will instantly put the US or other world powers on the path to nuclear warfare.  We know that both of their premises are false.  Space has never been a sanctuary, and interference with satellites is commonplace.  As demonstrated daily, such interference does not trigger nuclear wars.  Nevertheless, they insist the remedy to their imaginary scenario is to sign-up for all forms of codes of conduct or other arms control agreements.  Behind their altruistic shroud seems to lie an agenda aimed at undermining nation-states’ abilities to defend themselves from hostile or unlawful use of space or the systems that operate there.  To what end?  To whose benefit?

So, where is all of this technology taking us?  Anticipating the future is something I’ve been privileged to do as the Director of Dream Works in the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office and later as the Director of the Center for Strategy and Technology where I led the Chief of Staff’s Blue Horizons project.  It was my job to meet with ‘mad scientists’ not necessarily to find out how they were progressing with their government or commercial research, but to find out about their passions-what they were working on in their spare time and where they think the technology will lead.  One such discovery I made that is starting to make the news is a helmet that can read your thoughts.  Yes, I said, ‘read your thoughts.’  I visited a laboratory that was working on improving the brain-mechanical interface to improve the performance of prosthetic limbs.  They had taken a bicycle helmet and hollowed out its ribs and inserted electroencephalograph sensors that were connected by wires to a computer.

They are now able to map the firing of neurons and synapses throughout the brain whenever the brain is stimulated.  Whenever you see, hear, smell, feel, or taste anything there is a distinct brain pattern that you create in response to that stimulation.  What they discovered is that by watching a very simple movie and reading a story, they are now able to use this helmet to map where those specific thoughts and memories generated by the movie are stored in a subject’s brain.  After watching the movie, they invite their subjects to have an internal dialog with themselves.  While this is going on, the scientists are able to read the stream of conscious thoughts of each subject on a computer screen.  It is not perfect, but they can identify what the person is thinking about with roughly 50% accuracy.  This is brand new technology that has only existed for months.  Where will this technology lead?  This offers great hope not only for prosthetic users, but for brain trauma victims, comma patients, and the like.  The gaming industry is highly interested in this, as you might imagine!

Combine this with other technology being developed to make truly handless devices-a wifi system that does not work on machine-to-machine interface, but rather from machines directly to the human neural system.  Think of wifi between peoples’ nervous systems!  What society in general and policy makers in specific need to be thinking about now are the implications of ‘hacking’ peoples’ central nervous systems without their awareness.  Stealing their thoughts.  Robbing them of mental privacy.  Think also about the implications of inserting thoughts directly into their brains, not just as a matter of learning, but programming their thoughts and opinions!  This goes on today in the commercial marketplace of advertisement and marketing, but we have a gap between the marketers and ourselves.  What if they can manipulate our belief systems without our awareness?  Marketing, education, religion, and political campaigning will embrace these technologies.

Will we be ready?  I answer this question with a strong ‘maybe.’  I believe we are witnessing the evolution of the sixth medium of warfare.  In addition to air, land, sea, space, and cyber, we will soon be fighting in-what shall we call it?  Mental space?  Psychic space?  Neurospace?  It is most likely that our authors here with us today will name this new medium for us.

This seems quite scary, far-off in the future, and highly imaginative.  However, the devices to make this possible are being developed in garages, on workbenches, and in laboratories today.  William Gibson, the author ofNeuromancer, the book wherein he coined the term ‘cyberspace,’ tells us, ‘The future is already here.  It’s just unevenly distributed.’  This technology is out there and I have given you a glimpse of where I anticipate it heading.  It is clear that we will improve our engagement with the future if we study it intently today.

I want to emphasize the importance and credibility of proper future science.  I will finish with a little story.  The famous physicist, Michio Kaku, passed it along in his book Visions.  He tells us that back during the War a Frenchman writing about Paris in the Twentieth Century took note of the developing rocket technology of the day and the mechanical prowess of the Americans.  He concluded that America would likely be the first to the Moon, doing so with a multi-stage rocket, blasting three astronauts on their way from Florida, and returning to splash down in the ocean.  The Frenchman’s clairvoyance is made even more remarkable by the fact that the year was 1863 and the War was the American Civil War!  The Frenchman was Jules Verne, who filled his time interviewing scientists and inventors, pressing them to explain how far the technology they were working on could go.  As the late Paul Harvey used to say, ‘And now you know…the rest…of the story.

In summary, we have been living in the age of space and cyber warfare for a number of decades now.  There is no negotiating our way out, and no treaties that can be made to stop it.  In fact, in most cases space and cyber warfare is employed in lieu of using lethal and destructive force against people and property.

In an age where super-empowered individuals and groups cannot be deterred, the only way forward is to invest in space and cyber defenses and plan to operate through whatever interference they cause.  Eliminating critical dependencies on space and cyber is essential, as well as creating robust terrestrial back-ups for both mediums.  We can already glimpse with some discomfort where technology is taking us, but we can begin now to prepare for the emerging realities.

I look forward to learning from the rest of today’s distinguished speakers, and once again, I thank Rachel Ehrenfeld and the American Center for Democracy for having me here today.

Thank you.

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