The US retaliated for Iranian rocket attacks and Kata’ib Hizbollah's January 2nd attempt to storm the US embassy in Baghdad with a Reaper drone strike that targeted and killed the commander of Iran's Quds Force, Major General Soleimani, as he was in a car near Baghdad's airport. Kata’ib Hizbollah is an Iraqi Shi'ite militia aligned with Iran and effectively operating under the direction of the Quds Force. Soleimani is thought difficult to replace; the Atlantic called him "Iran's indispensable man."
Iran responded to the drone strike in two ways: a missile attack against a US installation that wounded some, but killed no, US personnel (see the Military Times for a quick report). US Space Command (the newest combatant command, and not to be confused with Space Force, discussed below) is said to have successfully met its first combat test in that engagement, providing early warning of the missile strike. Military.com quotes official sources on background to the effect that the alert was "probably" provided by the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) operated by the 460th Space Wing, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado. CBS Baltimore credits the Defense Special Missile and Aerospace Center (DEFSMAC) at Fort Meade with providing the warning.
Iran's second response was apparently a heightened air defense alert posture. This had tragic consequences: an air defense battery near Tehran shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, a Boeing 737-800 with 176 souls on board, shortly after it took off from Imam Khomeini International Airport en route to Kiev. All were killed. The BBC reports that the victims included 82 Iranians and 63 Canadians, as well as eleven crew and passengers from Ukraine, four each from Afghanistan and the United Kingdom, and three from Germany. The New York Times obtained video showing two missile shots, the second fired as the damaged 737 was turning to make an emergency landing in Tehran.
After some initial confusion and denial, Iran acknowledged responsibility for the shoot-down, explained it as an accident, and invited international participation in the investigation. The shootdown prompted anti-government protests in Iran. Tehran's acknowledgement of the error, "tragic and unforgivable," as the AP quotes official sources as describing it, is generally being regarded by observers as a gesture toward deescalation of tensions with the US.
Increased Iranian cyberattacks against US interests were widely expected, but these have so far failed to materialize, and an essay in Fifth Domain suggests that Iran on reflection would have reason to avoid an escalated conflict in cyberspace. Iran does appear to be preparing an attempt to launch a satellite, as Planet Labs imagery analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies suggests. The Military Times describes US objections to any such launch: it would, says the US, amount to a test of a long-range ballistic missile.
Pyongyang's dog failed to bark.
Pyongyang's promised "Christmas gift" to the US, widely expected to be a long-range missile test, failed to materialize at the end of December. The US Department of Defense is unsure what made North Korea change its mind. The Hill quotes Undersecretary for Policy John Rood's testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on January 28th: “Predicting North Korea’s future behavior is always hazardous. We don’t know fully the reasons why the North Koreans did not engage in more provocative behavior, which they seemed to be hinting they were planning to do in December.”
Space Force update.
US Space Force is now a reality, with its first commander, Air Force General Jay Raymond, sworn in as Chief of Space Operations on January 14th. General Raymond will also have a seat among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Stars and Stripes reports. The new Service is expected to present Congress with its first organizational plan in early February, according to Air Force Magazine, an important first step on the way to achieving full capability by 2024.
Space Force will have to evolve operational doctrine. Much of that doctrine will necessarily be concerned with protecting friendly satellites and disabling hostile satellites in ways that don't create, as a Hill op-ed suggests, a debris field that would render near-earth space impassible. The Service might also need to concern itself with developing technologies capable of clearing orbital debris.
One major milestone on the path to maturity by 2024 is development of an acquisition capability. The Space Development Agency is preparing to become part of Space Force by October 2022, Defense News reports. In the meantime the new Service will hold its own pitch day on March 4th. Modeled on the popular show Shark Tank, if Space Force follows the precedent set by its Department of the Air Force parent, the Service sharks will be able to award SBIR contracts on the spot. Proposals are due, C4ISRNet says, by February 5th. Details of topics may be found here.
And Space Force is also hiring. Federal Times notes that Space Force headquarters has advertised a number of open civilian positions, all of them rated at GS-12 or above.
There are of course other matters to be addressed. The US hasn't created a new Service culture since the Air Force was spun out of the Army in 1947, and culture is more important to a military Service than it is to most other organizations. What sorts of uniforms will Space Force wear, for example? They've already adopted a version of Army and Air Force operational camouflage (with dark blue name tapes), a sensible choice for reasons of economy and practicality. What will its Class A or dress uniforms look like? And what will members of Space Force be called? The Air Force jettisoned "Private" and "Soldier" for "Airman" when it left the Army; what will Space Force's equivalent be? "Spaceman," "Spacewoman," or "Spaceperson" all seem wayward. Military Times is running a poll on what the term should be; the only entrant with any plausibility strikes us as "Trooper." Most of the other suggestions are whimsical non-starters. And what, in general, should the rank structure be? Should it resemble a variation of the similar Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force systems, or should it take its inspiration from the Navy and Coast Guard, or from something else altogether?
Finally, some Air Force Bases will become Space Bases, and General Raymond is working on a list of those destined to be so renamed. Business Insider speculates that the Space Bases will include Peterson, Buckley, Cheyenne Mountain, Schriever, Patrick, and Vandenberg.
Allied military space organizations develop.
Both the UK and Japan have made strides toward putting military space organizations in place. Neither is as extensive or ambitious as US Space Force (they are closer in conception to US Space Command), but both represent significant organizational steps.
Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth has been appointed to lead Space Command, which will remain part of the Royal Air Force, Defense News reports. The UK will also create a Cabinet-level National Space Council.
Defense News also reports that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on January 21st that Japan will stand up the Space Domain Mission Unit in April. Among the Mission Unit's principal concerns will be missile defense. The Space Domain Mission Unit will form part of the Air Self-Defense Force and expects to work particularly closely with its American counterparts.
Boeing, long one of the world's largest defense and aerospace integrators, suffered a damaging series of surprisingly bad news through 2019, and that news has continued to snowball into 2020. 737 MAX software issues, responsible for two lethal crashes, have taken a major toll on the company's commercial aviation business, and the company booked its first losing year in decades. While its defense and space units have done notably better than its airliner production group, even those suffered an unaccustomed run of stumbles, as WIRED points out. Aerotime Hub goes so far as to speculate that the firm may have to break itself up into viable components. New CEO David Calhoun, regarded as a turnaround specialist, has a great deal to do as he seeks to make things right at Boeing, as the Washington Post reports. These include not only resuming 737 MAX production and restoring the company's place in commercial aviation (according to the UPI, in 2019 cancellations exceeded new orders), but also, in a long-running episode described by Bloomberg, mollifying the US Air Force over the poor performance of the company's KC-46 tanker. NASA may, CNBC reports, ask the company to attempt another uncrewed test of its Starliner spacecraft after the failure of December's flight. The biggest challenge may be addressing a declining corporate culture on display in internal company documents that have attracted the attention of Congress, the media, and investors.
The US Defense Department continues to work to foster innovation, but also continues its long-running struggle to close the proverbial "valley of death" between research and development on the one hand and engineering development, production and fielding on the other. In a January 24th speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies covered by FedScoop, Defense Secretary Esper cites a culture "risk aversion" as an obstacle to the US military's ability to rapidly and affordably field new capabilities. Secretary Esper sees close engagement with the private sector as the key to changing that culture, but according to Defense News venture capitalists think one overlooked problem the Pentagon has is failure to give start-ups the reliable, recurring revenue they need. The slow, elaborate requirements process, the perennial villain in attempts to field capabilities quickly, has recently been on display in the JEDI program and other Defense cloud project, and the VCs think that needs to change, another Defense News piece reports. But this advice has been given so often, for so long, and in so many forms, that one may be excused for skepticism that it will be realized in the near term, if ever.
It's crowded in low-earth orbit.
A near-miss between a functioning and a defunct satellite brought the fore the growing problem of space debris. Leo Labs, a space debris tracking shop, tweeted its observations of the near collision: "We are monitoring a close approach event involving IRAS (13777), the decommissioned space telescope launched in 1983, and GGSE-4 (2828), an experimental US payload launched in 1967." Neither satellite was maneuverable, so there was nothing to be done about the near-miss except watch it. Fortunately the two spacecraft missed each other at their closest point of approach on January 30th. The incident highlighted the difficulty of predicting collisions: estimates of the probability of the two satellites' hitting one another fluctuated considerably as they approached, Science Alert notes. The odds had been as bad as 20 to 1, according to C4ISRNet's summary. For perspective, NASA has moved the International Space Station when the probability of collision reaches 100,000 to 1. Atmospheric effects on drag are complex and imperfectly modeled.
One company, Planet, has decided to retire its RapidEye commercial imaging satellite constellation. First flown in 2008, the RapidEye spacecraft were designed to operate for seven years. They're still functioning, but Planet has decided to retire them this year, moving them from the current orbit at 398 miles (640 kilometers) to 368 miles (590 kilometers), which will reduce their time to de-orbit from seventy-five to twenty-five years. This meets the internationally agreed-upon best-practice: satellites should de-orbit within twenty-five years of ceasing operations. As Futurism pointed out, this month's near-miss prompted calls for more stringent international agreements on orbital debris management.
IEEE Spectrum reports that the European Space Agency's ClearSpace-1 mission, funded in November, hopes to explore technological approaches to limiting the effect of orbital debris.
The US Department of Defense has new cybersecurity requirements for contractors.
The long-anticipated cybersecurity rules the Defense Department wants the Defense Industrial Base to live by reached their final form at the end of January. CMMC Model v1.0 will be phased in over the summer of 2020. The Defense Department is open to receiving comments on the rules, as Nextgov reports, but in outline the new guidelines establish a five-level system that grows more stringent with the sensitivity of the work a company performs. Previously contractors had been required to attest that they adhered to practices recommended by NIST. The new rules will require certification by paid, accredited, third-party assessors.
Two cases highlight the personnel security and insider threat challenges.
Charles Lieber, professor and chair of Harvard's chemistry and chemical biology department, has been charged with a single felony count for making false statements to US government agencies. The charge is related to his failure to disclose that he was working for China's Thousand Talents program, receiving $1.5 million from Wuhan University of Technology while he simultaneously received US Federal research grants. He faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. The Wall Street Journal observes that it's not illegal to receive foreign grants, but that any such relationships must be disclosed when applying for support from US agencies. A specialist in nanotechnology, Professor Lieber had received millions in grants from the US Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.
Quartz reports that a Raytheon Missile Systems engineer, Wei Sun, has been arrested for taking a company-issued laptop containing classified information with him on a trip to China. He's being charged with violating Federal export control laws. Apparently Raytheon's security staff found the problem and reported Mr. Sun to the authorities.
Today's edition of the CyberWire reports events affecting Afghanistan, Canada, China, Germany, Iran, Japan, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Iran, photos suggest a US-criticized satellite launch looms(Military Times) Iranian officials and satellite images suggest the Islamic Republic is preparing to a launch a satellite into space after three major failures last year, the latest for a program which the U.S. claims helps Tehran advance its ballistic missile program.
Defense firms cash in on an ‘unprecedented’ wave of classified spending(Washington Post) Some of the Washington area’s biggest defense contractors are making more money than ever from classified military and intelligence programs, top executives told investors this week, as competition with China and Russia drives a wave of secret spending one analyst called “unprecedented in recent history.”
Air Force Wants Multi-Platform Jammers To Support MDO(Breaking Defense) The RFI is one of the first industry solicitations since the Air Force announced in April 2019 an overhaul of its EW operations to counter Russian and Chinese advances, and to enable multi-domain operations.
Is Boeing heading towards a split of its businesses?(Aerotime) With its Commercial Aviation division caught in the middle of the 737 MAX crisis, Boeing has seen its financial results severely affected in 2019. However, the revenue of both its Defense, Space & Security and Global Services divisions are on the rise. Could Boeing split up its activities in order to protect them?
Orlando P. Carvalho Elected to the Board of Directors of Mercury Systems, Inc.(Globe Newswire) Mercury Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: MRCY, www.mrcy.com), announced that Orlando P. Carvalho, former Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics business, was elected to the Board of Directors. With this election, the Board of Directors will consist of nine members, eight of which are independent directors.
SATCOM datalink airborne command post(Military & Aerospace Electronics) The Boeing E-6 Mercury airborne command post and communications relay aircraft is based on the stretched Boeing 707-320 narrow-body passenger jet.
What we know about Iran’s counter-space weapons(C4ISRNET) While Iran is unlikely to have effective direct ascent anti-satellite weapons in the near future, they have developed technologies that could potentially degrade or deny U.S. space capabilities in their territory.
Design and Innovation
Full Page Reload(IEEE Spectrum) Kepler Communications’ CubeSat routers will keep other satellites in constant contact with the ground.
Techstars Grooms 10 Tech Startups For Air Force(Breaking Defense) Of 20 commercial startups the Techstars Air Force Accelerator has helped, 19 have gone on to win a collective $20-plus million in DoD Small Business Innovation Research contracts.
Max Q: SpaceX succeeds with a spectacular Crew Dragon test launch(TechCrunch) Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox. We’re off and running with good milestones achieved for NASA’s commercial crew program, which means it’s more likely than ever we’ll actually see astronauts launch f…
SpaceX sets key Crew Dragon in-flight abort test for January 18(TechCrunch) SpaceX and NASA have shared an official target launch date for the all-important in-flight abort test of Crew Dragon, their commercial crew spacecraft. The in-flight abort test is a required component before NASA astronauts can climb on board and take their first trip aboard the Crew Dragon. NASA a…
Questions abound for Iranian military in wake of Soleimani killing(The Washington Times) Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the veteran Iranian military leader killed by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad earlier this month, enjoyed a level of autonomy from his superiors in Tehran that his successor likely will not possess, according to a new analysis of the Iranian military from the American Enterprise Institute.
UN Chief Says 'Stop Escalation' Amid Rising U.S.-Iran Tensions(RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty) UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has joined a number of political leaders across the world in calling for restraint amid rapidly rising tensions between Washington and Tehran after the United States killed Iran's top military commander.
New bill could get Italy its own DARPA(Defense News) A new bill in the Italian Senate envisages the setup of a new agency able to stimulate and coordinate the development of civil technologies for military application.
How would the Space Force wage war?(TheHill) The people forming the Space Force and its doctrine must develop ways to wage war in the heavens without generating a catastrophic amount of orbiting debris.
GSA’s Davie headed to new role at NASA(Federal News Network) Mary Davie, GSA’s director of the program management office for human resources shared services, will leave the agency after 30 years on Feb. 3.
The military's contractor cyber standards are officially here(FedScoop) The Pentagon issued the final standards under the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) on Friday. Version 1.0 marks the first step towards implementing the new cybersecurity standards into all Defense Department contracts.