Drones, cyberattacks, and the grey area in the Gulf.
Drone strikes against Saudi oil fields on September 14th cut production in the Kingdom roughly in half. The Saudi Aramco facilities at the Abqaiq processing center and the Khurais oil field were both hit, as the Telegraph summarizes. The strikes were initially attributed to Houthi rebels in Yemen who have for some time been engaged with Saudi forces operating in Yemen’s complicated civil war, a conflict with regional implications. The Houthis themselves claimed responsibility for strike, saying they launched ten drones at Saudi targets.
Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the US have blamed Iran for the attacks. Minimally, the Houthis are Iranian clients who are generally regarded as working on behalf of Iran in the ongoing conflict among Gulf rivals. And the Houthi story doesn’t seem entirely consistent with evidence collected on the ground and during the strikes themselves. Imagery released by the US Government suggests that at least nineteen drones were launched, seventeen of which hit their targets. The US said that at least twenty drones were launched, along with an additional, unspecified number of cruise missiles. Saudi authorities released photographs of debris at the site of the strikes that’s consistent with Iranian Quds cruise missiles, and sources within the US Government say there’s evidence that the cruise missiles were launched from Iran. Iran has denied any involvement in the strikes; Tehran has also said that in any case the Houthi were entirely justified in carrying them out.
Saudi Aramco is working quickly to restore production, but the strikes represent a significant escalation of conflict in the Gulf. The US so far has not taken kinetic military action against Iran, but cyber conflict between the two nations has continued to build since Iran’s destruction of a US Global Hawk surveillance drone on June 20th, and subsequent US retaliation with disabling cyberattacks. The strikes against the oil facilities has, however, led the US to respond by deploying an Army Patriot missile battery to Saudi Arabia. Two other Patriot batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense fire unit have been placed on standby for deployment.
Novel anti-drone systems.
Saudi air defenses deployed around the oil fields showed the classic air defense organization of mass and mix: the Abqaiq facility was defended by US-made Patriot missiles, Swiss-made 35mm Oerlikon automatic cannons with Skyguard radars, and versions of French-made Croatale missiles. These are together capable of engaging targets from low to high altitudes. Mass and mix (with mobility, which in this case doesn't apply to a fixed target like an oil field) are the basic principles of air defense. Yet none of these systems apparently engaged the drones and cruise missiles. Why they failed to do so remains unclear. In some respects, however, low altitude defense against drone swarms and low-altitude cruise missiles is a tougher task than defense against more conventional airborne threats. The difficulty lies in detecting small targets against a cluttered radar background, and other approaches to detection, including persistent overheard imagery, don't currently provide continuous regional coverage.
The weapons themselves may also be imperfectly adapted to killing drones and low-flying cruise missiles. The US is working on a range of energy weapons that can destroy or neutralize such targets. Some of those systems, notably the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS), have been used in combat with some success: a MADIS system deployed aboard USS Boxer successfully took down an Iranian drone earlier this summer. Work is also in progress on smaller kinetic weapons that might prove more effective against drone swarms than more conventional missile and gun systems. Central to such new approaches to air defense is the modelling and close study of drone technologies, including commercial drone technologies, that could be used to exploit their vulnerabilities in ways that enabled drones to be jammed, intercepted, or destroyed. The Air Force is working on a prototype of "PHASER," a microwave system designed to take down swarms. The Raytheon-developed system is entering a year-long operational assessment in an undisclosed overseas area of operations. The attacks against the Saudi oil facilities have lent urgency to the evaluation. PHASER and related systems like the Air Force's THOR are attractive options for defense against swarms in that they're area weapons, able to stop a large number of targets at once.
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OPIR and rapid prototyping.
The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended a $536 million plus-up for Next-Generation OPIR (Overheard Persistent Infrared) satellites. The Committee's report noted that “If the program is to have any chance of success, the department [of the Air Force] cannot continue to rely on reprogramming requests for its funding.”
The Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center is pursuing rapid prototyping to field these systems in less than the seven or more years conventional acquisition approaches would require. Its use of Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs) has been a characteristic feature of this procurement, and is widely seen as likely to be applied to other military space programs.
Close approaches in orbit...
A Russian satellite, variously called "Luch" or "Olymp," closely approached an Intelsat in geosynchronous orbit. Luch has been engaged in this sort of activity since its launch in September of 2014. Why it's doing so remains obscure: speculation runs from inspection, to capability signaling, to interception of data from the satellites it approaches, but observers express concerns about the possibility of inadvertent collisions or deliberate destruction.
The increasingly crowded near-earth orbit space saw an accidental near-collision as well. A SpaceX Starlink satellite, Starlink 44, narrowly missed hitting an ESA Aeolus earth observation spacecraft. ESA used Aeolus's thrusters to move the satellite to a safer position. Initial reports said, erroneously, that SpaceX refused a request to move Starlink 44 away from Aeolus after US Air Force monitoring detected the risk, but it appears instead that a communications failure left SpaceX in the dark about the increased risk of collision. Neither ESA nor Spacelink has called the other out as being at fault, and in any case international space law remains unclear on responsibility for avoiding collisions. But near-earth orbit is growing crowded. SpaceX alone plans to eventually have 12,000 satellites in its Starlink constellation, and the legacy approach of coordinating satellite maneuvers by phone calls, emails, and (apparently) pages between controllers at ground stations is no longer adequate to its task. Greater automation of collision avoidance seems imperative.
Low-earth orbit will become increasingly important for missile defense satellites, as the Air Force intends to place its Next-Generation OPIR spacecraft closer to the planet.
Debris is a growing problem as well. More than 8400 tons of it are believed to be in orbit. Several companies, many of them based in the UK, are working on systems designed to clear crowded regions of space.
US agencies are engaged in a struggle, driven partly by differing visions of the challenge and partly by concerns over authorities (and agency equities) to sort out a national policy for dealing with orbital debris.
...And satellite hacking.
The Air Force announced its intention of offering up a satellite to white hat hackers at next year's DefCon hackers' convention, which represents an extension of the increasingly popular bug bounty approach to vulnerability research.
NSA has its own satellite security research program underway. The agency is studying satellite anomalies to develop ways of determining whether a spacecraft has come under hostile control.
The US Air Force sees "viable competition" for National Security Space Launches. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and the United Launch Alliance have all said that they're bidding on the work. Bids went in last month, and the Air Force intends to select two of the competitors by June of next year.
Cloud contracts, security, and cyberspace.
The Defense Department's very large $10 billion JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) cloud procurement, controversial over concerns with the way in which it appears headed for either Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, is also being questioned on grounds of security. Some 80% of the Department's data are expected to move to the JEDI cloud, and critics look at this and see a very large single point of failure.
JEDI isn't the only large Defense cloud program to encounter controversy. Perspecta is protesting last month's award of the Defense Enterprise Office Solutions (DEOS) to CSRA and General Dynamics. The General Services Administration evaluated the bids, and Perspecta alleges that the evaluation was both inadequate and conflicted, and that it should have been chosen over CSRA. The contract is nominally worth $7.6 billion over ten years, but it seems this estimate is low, and that in fact DEOS may come with an additional $5 billion.
Other functions, including some related to the development of cybersecurity tools, are also headed for clouds. The Air Force is working out a blanket purchase agreement (another rapid acquisition mechanism) with fifteen vendors to support its LevelUp program. This will become a secure DevOps platform for cyber operations systems. The Air Force program is part of the Service's cybersecurity wish list, a suite of programs designed to keep pace with swiftly evolving technical and operational conditions in cyberspace.
The Army continues to bring its multi-domain task forces online, pushing cyber and information operational capability that would formerly have been held as national assets down to the tactical level. The Service's vision is to make requests for offensive cyber and information operations as decentralized as artillery calls for fire.
Satellites and satellite services.
Air Force Space Command has awarded Iridium a seven-year, $738.5 million contract for satellite services. Iridium isn't new to the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services program, which it's supported for twenty years, but a seven-year extension is, Iridium says, "unprecedented."
The National Reconnaissance Office is exploring commercial delivery of hyperspectral imagery. HySpecIQ has received a contract to study the feasibility of such sources of overhead imagery. This marks the NRO's fourth contract this year for expanded use of commercial satellite imagery. Earlier this summer NRO awarded study contracts to BlackSky Global, Maxar Technologies and Planet.
The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program's constellation is nearing its end-of-life, and the Air Force is looking for replacement capability. Some of that may be found in NOAA platforms already in orbit, but the Air Force expects to need to field its own ground stations.
The Air Force is also working toward a development process that will enable it to cycle through satellites more rapidly, The Service's current thinking is that not only do development times need to be more compressed, but the satellites' lifetime in orbit should be shorter as well: they're thinking in terms of three-to-four years in each case, with eight years being about the maximum any spacecraft would spend in orbit. Such satellites would be more affordable than "exquisite" systems (the word is Space and Missile Systems Command boss Lieutenant General Thompson's) that stay in space for a generation.
The National Geospatial Agency has posted a GEOINT support services request for information. Replies are due by October 31st, and interested parties should submit any questions no later than October 4th.
Space Force, Space Command, and the Space Development Agency.
Plans for a Space Force remain on track, but Space Command is here and operating. The new command is developing plans for warfighting in space--for the most part a series of options for protecting US satellites from hostile interference. The command is also clarifying its relationship with the National Reconnaissance Office.
The Space Development Agency (SDA), the young acquisition organization that will serve both Space Force and Space Command, is also taking shape. The SDA will also have a complicated relationship with the National Reconnaissance Office, which will continue to purchase its own satellite systems.
Today's edition of the CyberWire reports events affecting Australia, China, France, India, Iran, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
US pinpoints launch sites for Saudi oil strikes(Times) Pentagon officials claim to have pinpointed the launch area for the weekend’s devastating attack on Saudi oil facilities, saying that cruise missiles were fired from western Iran. As Mike Pompeo...
Trump leans against striking Iran(POLITICO) Confidants say the president may talk tough, but he’s deeply reluctant to drag the United States into a fresh war in the Middle East.
U.S. Blames Iran for Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities(Wall Street Journal) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for coordinated strikes on the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, saying they marked an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. The strikes shut down half of the kingdom’s crude production, potentially roiling petroleum prices.
Blast From the Past(Foreign Policy) Forty years ago, a U.S. satellite detected the telltale signs of a nuclear explosion. An analysis of the evidence today points to a clandestine nuclear…
Is Pentagon JEDI Program a $10B Cloud Security Fiasco?(SDxCentral) Data breaches remain the No. 1 cloud security threat, costing companies millions of dollars per breach not to mention permanent reputational damage and loss of trust. But when and if the Pentagon suffers a breach, there’s a lot more to worry about than cost.
NGA releases GEOINT services RFI(Intelligence Community News) On September 16, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency posted a request for information for GEOINT support services. Questions are due no later than 5:00 p.m. Central on October 4, and …
Keeping the U.S. defense and aerospace sector strong(The Washington Times) The rules of modern warfare are changing. The folks who still believe victory goes to the side that “gets there the firstest with the mostest” need to step aside in favor of the strategists who realize it’s new technologies, applied appropriately, that will provide the margin of victory. This isn’t a radical idea. History is replete with examples of new technologies producing lasting strategic changes. That’s happening now as cyberspace becomes not just a potential future battlefield but the place where global weapons systems live.
Space Sales Decelerate At Thales(Aviation Week) A drop-off in space business challenged French aerospace and defense prime Thales during the first half of 2019, the company acknowledged Sept. 4.
SAIC Wins Australian Tactical Data Link Support Contract(Yahoo) Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) won a task order on the Joint Range Extension Support contract from the Australian Department of Defence. “We’re proud to partner with the Australian Department of Defence on this important initiative,” said David Armstrong, vice president and general
Branson: Virgin Launch Of USAF Sat By End Of Year(Breaking Defense) Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson hopes that his LauncherOne airborne launch system's capability to rapidly launch smallsats "will be a deterrent to an enemy state, that is to not attack satellites in the first place."
The Air Force wants satellites that grow fast, die young(Defense News) As the U.S. Air Force considers moving to a Century Series-style process for building its next fighter jet, with new designs constantly being produced, the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center has a process already underway for building satellites.
Iran poised for faster centrifuges as nuclear deal collapses(Military Times) Iran was poised Thursday to begin work on advanced centrifuges that will enrich uranium faster as the 2015 nuclear deal unravels further and a last-minute French proposal offering a $15 billion line of credit to compensate Iran for not being able to sell its crude oil abroad because of U.S. sanctions looked increasingly unlikely.
Army develops new drone-killing technology(Fox News) They can form swarms of hundreds of mini, precision-guided explosives, overwhelm radar or simply blanket an area with targeting sensors. They can paint or light up air, ground or sea targets for enemy fighters, missiles or armored vehicles, massively increasing warzone vulnerability.
See the Air Force's new microwave energy drone-destroyer - the PHASER(Military Times) The Pentagon has ordered a prototype of a microwave energy weapon designed to take down swarms of unmanned aerial drones on the battlefield. Slated for the Air Force, it will be tested for one year in the field to see if it works well enough to become part of the US arsenal.
Pentagon's Non-Lethal Weapons Office Pushing Gray-Zone Warfare Tools(USNI News) The Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate is hoping to reframe the talk about non-lethal weapons amid a push by the Defense Department to boost lethality for high-end warfare. The office’s director, Marine Corps Col. Wendell Leimbach, instead wants to talk about capability gaps in an era of gray zone …
The Silicon Valley Heavyweights Who Want to Settle the Moon(Bloomberg) The moon is all the rage these days. China wants to send people there. So too does the United States and NASA. In fact, just about every country with a space program has some sort of lunar ambition that they hope will play out over the next few years.
Executives Say $1 Billion for AI Research Isn’t Enough(Wall Street Journal) The announcement of a nearly $1 billion federal commitment toward artificial-intelligence research drew a mixed response from business leaders who said the U.S. needs to do more to maintain a competitive edge in AI.
Trump Orders Substantial New Sanctions on Iran(Wall Street Journal) President Trump said on Wednesday that he ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to substantially raise sanctions on Iran, the first U.S. policy response to last week’s attack on critical Saudi Arabian oil facilities.
SPACECOM To Write New Ops War Plan: 100km And Up(Breaking Defense) If the US receives intelligence that Russia is prepping a strike against a US satellite, does SPACECOM task a drone or a B-21 bomber to take it out before it launches? Or does Gen. Raymond choose to simply maneuver the targeted satellite out of the way?
Declassify Space Threats, US Capabilities For Stronger Deterrence: AFCENT(Breaking Defense) "Right now space is a supporting element to a geographic [component command] ... but that paradigm is going to flip over time, where the supported command -- the primacy, where the actions will happen first -- is going to be space," says Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, head of Air Force Central Command.
AFSPC Mulls Intel, Personnel Questions of the New Space Age(Air Force Magazine) Figuring out how to keep a closer eye on what’s happening in outer space instead of using space to peer down at Earth is among the uncharted capability and personnel issues USAF must navigate as a possible Space Force comes to fruition, Shaw said.
Air Force Brass Lead New SpaceCom Subcommand(Breaking Defense) CFSCC's mission includes executing "tactical control over globally dispersed Air Force, Army, and Navy space units that command satellites in every orbital regime."
Security clearance reforms: our nation depends on it(Federal Times) Recent actions have dramatically reduced the backlog for investigations needed to grant security clearances. However, increases in the number of completed investigations created a whole new backlog in the next step of the process.