Cyber attacks on systems linked to the Landsat 7 satellite (above) and other spacecraft are evidence of “hybrid warfare” threats to the US and its allies in space that need to be carefully countered. (credit: NASA)
It is increasingly impossible to separate malevolent activities in space from geopolitical flashpoints on Earth. Given Beijing and Moscow’s aggressive efforts to advance their agendas in strategically significant regions, there is a near-term risk of a flare-up that could implicate space operations. This includes maritime disputes in the South China, East China, and Black Seas, a military conflict with North Korea, a breakdown in relations with Iran, and US intervention in Venezuela.
Accordingly, beside the need to ensure that the US and its allies are correctly evaluating Chinese and Russian thinking concerning space stability, strategy, and doctrine, there is an urgent requirement for accelerated contingency planning and “early warning” communications with these two space powers, spelling out the potentially harsh consequences of continued counterspace positioning, probes, and provocations. Naturally, it is essential that the US and its partners be truly ready to manage a more serious counterspace incident designed to disrupt, or even cripple, vital space services (e.g. command and control) in a theater of heightened tensions or conflict.
Extensive diplomatic efforts have not, as yet, yielded the desired outcomes on this score at a time of expanding dangers to a stable and secure space environment. This is evidenced by a rise in hybrid warfare tactics employed by China and Russia in space (i.e. engaging in provocative actions just below the threshold of required US and allied retaliatory responses.) Examples include cyber attacks against the German ROSAT satellite in 1998,1 Landsat 7 and Terra (EOS AM-1) satellites in 2007 and 2008,2 respectively, JAXA’s computer used in the development of the H-2A Transfer Vehicle in 2011,3 and a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite and weather service systems in 2014.4 Other provocative actions involved China’s blinding of a US surveillance satellite in 2006,5 Russia’s jamming and spoofing of GPS during the annexation of Crimea,6 and Russia’s Kosmos 2504 close proximity manoeuvers in 2015 and 2017.7
Understanding and countering “space hybrid warfare” practices by these two space competitors would help substantially in strengthening space security and improving space systems resilience. Government and multilateral deliberations on hybrid warfare to date have concentrated almost exclusively on terrestrial and maritime conflicts (e.g. Russia’s military operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, China’s militarization of illegal islands in the South China Sea, and so on.) Meanwhile, the space domain has rarely been subject to the same terminology and policy-making mindset (except perhaps by the US military), despite the fact that the same state actors, strategies, and techniques are presently in play in space as well.
In general, space provocations (including the temporary and reversible disruption of space services) have been designed to probe the weaknesses of US and allied space resiliency, as well as to test their political resolve, while remaining just below the “penalty” threshold. The growing number of incidents and attacks on ground stations, communication links, and satellites (often not reported) call for tougher, more creative deterrence.
Viewing space hybrid warfare practices for what they are could provide the military and policy decision-makers with a better framework for countermeasures, including Phase Zero discussions with China and Russia warning of the consequences of kinetic engagement or the serious disruption of vital space services. It could also help bolster accountability and transparency as China and Russia’s restraint, or the lack thereof, in employing such hybrid practices would signal their intentions. The good news is that the US has taken concrete steps in this direction. Planned upgrades for the US Joint Space Operations Center Mission System (JMS), for example, include new capabilities for real-time alerts of jamming or other hostile acts against US space-based sensors. The United States also announced plans to develop a common architecture for satellite ground systems.
Economic and financial response options to space hybrid threats
Meaningful and effective responses to space hybrid threats and practices are in relatively short supply. Given the fragility of the space environment, retaliating against threatening or disruptive Chinese or Russian behavior or actions within the space domain carry a number of potentially severe downside risks. A “tit-for-tat” escalatory spiral in space is viewed by most experts as highly undesirable and perilous. Such “space domain” responses can also reveal the classified capabilities of the US and other responsible space actors that are best held in reserve for true crises. This is likewise the case with the cyber domain. As the US has long been aware of these limitations, it has made clear that it would respond to hostile actions in space in a domain and time of its choosing, thereby creating constructive ambiguity as well as flexibility.
It is in the context of such “cross-domain” responses that the economic and financial (E&F) domain is particularly attractive. Today, it appears that Beijing and Moscow are simply not anticipating that hostile behavior in space could put at risk elements of their active participation in the international trading and financial systems where they quite literally live or die. Accordingly, it is a fair bet that risking unfettered access to the global markets is not something these governments have in mind and such a prospect would likely alter their calculus in a manner favorable to allied interests and a safer, more secure space environment. E&F response options tailored to various contingencies would enhance deterrence and expand the US and allied toolkit.
Cross-domain solution sets in the economic and financial domain have a number of major advantages, among them that they are non-kinetic and they do not require official sanctions to be implemented. Risk-relevant information made available to the global markets could often serve as the penalty—which is the essence of this enterprising initiative.
When it comes to the markets, information is the proverbial coin of the realm. Specifically, a detailed understanding of the global operations and footprints of Chinese and Russian space-related state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and their family of subsidiaries, would serve as a good starting point. It would, for example, help space policy analysts to distinguish between benign, commercial operations of these entities and those that are strategically driven. Tracking and mapping the international transactions of these companies reveal that they often engage in projects in security-sensitive countries, with high-risk partners. The complex network of subsidiaries of these enterprises helps them operate in a non-transparent manner with little market scrutiny and risk. This enables them to engage in state-sponsored, targeted business activities designed to bolster malevolent capabilities in space consistent with both countries’ strong belief in asymmetric warfare. At the same time, these firms are seeking to build positive reputations globally—something they covet—making them vulnerable to being publically exposed as questionable or bad actors. For example, it could make prospective Western partners recoil if the “risk profile” of these Chinese and Russian companies were to rise and become more visible.
Potential cross-domain responses in the E&F portfolio can take several forms:
- “Naming and shaming” SOEs (and their equivalents) for security-related abuses.
- Sanctioning Chinese or Russian space-related enterprises operating within the US or doing business with American corporate entities and persons elsewhere.
- Denying access of offending space-related entities to the US financial system (including the capital markets).
- Sanctioning non-space-related Russian or Chinese companies operating in the US (e.g. Russia’s Uranium One, a US subsidiary of the nuclear giant Rosatom, which reportedly holds some 20 percent of America’s uranium reserves) as these entities are also state-owned.
- Forging multilateral sanctions directed toward launch services, technical cooperation, joint projects, and other major benefits associated with global business engagement.
In short, such corporate, security-related abuses should not enjoy the best of both worlds: undermining a secure and reliable space environment, while prospering as legitimate partners in the global markets (including tapping into allied debt and equity markets for large-scale funding). According to an open source intelligence product, called IntelTrak, as of September 1, 2017, there were 56 active or pending transactions of Chinese and Russian space enterprises globally in 25 countries, six of which were in the US.8
An example of the kind of state-owned companies that can be illuminated in response to provocative actions in space is a Chinese entity, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company. It built a satellite tracking, telemetry, and command station in the Patagonia region of Argentina, based on an agreement between China Satellite Launch & Tracking Control General (CLTC) and Argentina’s Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE). CHEC is a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contractor that is also involved in illegal island-building, and militarization of same, in the South China Sea. This Chinese facility, their first of such a large-scale abroad, became operational in April 2017.9
The facility has steerable parabolic antennas 13.5 and 35 meters in diameter, computer and engineering facilities, lodgings for staff, and an electric power plant.10 Although China has denied any military applications, it provides an ideal location to observe and track satellites over the Western Hemisphere. Interestingly, the Chinese will hold a land lease for 50 years and the Argentine government is not permitted by contract to interrupt the activities of the station under any circumstances, and all staff (many of them PLA) working at the station are solely subject to Chinese law. The project cited above represents a good example of a seemingly commercial transaction of a supposedly reputable Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) that is, in fact, advancing the country’s strategic objectives under the direct control of the PLA without any meaningful media scrutiny, security-minded due diligence, or elevated market risk. A powerful tracking station that doubles as a signals intelligence facility obviously serves both military and political objectives, while also taking on certain civilian tasks. According to IntelTrak, CHEC has active transactions in 28 other countries, a number of which are security-sensitive.11
When granular, transactional-level analysis is conducted, the activities of these Chinese and Russian state-controlled corporate facilitators of space hybrid warfare can be publically revealed. The investments and projects of these state-owned enterprises point to what these space powers are doing, not saying. The US and its allies need to be positioned to have this kind of E&F data at their fingertips, including Air Force Space Command, US Strategic Command, and allied policy-makers in the event of such eventualities as another Chinese ASAT test in geostationary orbit, dangerous close-proximity maneuvers by the Russians, or disruption of ground-based infrastructure (primarily via cyber attack).
As stated above, a major advantage of E&F cross-domain responses is that it is not necessary to sanction these companies right away (or even down the road), but rather point out publically the reckless, irresponsible, or outright malevolent space practices made possible by these Chinese and Russian entities happily doing business worldwide. As this information is largely open source, it could also be publically referenced by the Pentagon, State Department, or combatant commands from their respective podiums and in publications. This can initially be a strategy of elevating the risk profile of these offending companies in the global markets and damaging their corporate reputations—which are no small matter. At presently, this rarely, if ever, occurs beyond announcing official sanctions.
With the proliferation of hybrid warfare threats to space that enable China and Russia to conduct operations that test, intimidate, degrade and disable US and allied space capabilities (even if reversible and temporary), the US and its allies need to adopt new strategies to counter these reckless practices.
Admittedly, this is, at times, a “gray zone” intelligence and policy environment with imperfect attribution (particularly in the cyber domain) and a number of disincentives associated with taking concrete retaliatory action. An E&F toolkit, however, has the immediate potential to become a powerful means of persuasion and deterrence with regard to countries engaging in space hybrid warfare against the US and its allies without unleashing cascading effects that could degrade a fragile space environment or lead to kinetic conflict.
- Xavier Pasco. “Various Threats of Space Systems” in Handbook of Space Security, Kai-Uwe Schrogl & al., eds., Springer (2015), p. 673–674.
- 2011 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, U.S. Government Printing Office (2011), pp. 215–217. accessed on Dec 12, 2015
- “JAXA Computer Virus Adds to Growing Cyber Security Concerns in Space”, Space Safety Magazine (Jan 19, 2012).
- 2015 Report to Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington: US Government Printing Office, November 2015, p.296.
- Harris, Francis. “Beijing secretly fires lasers to disable US satellites”, The Telegraph (Sep 26, 2006).
- Pomerleau, Mark. “Threat from Russian UAV Jamming Real, Officials Say”. C4ISRNET (Dec 20, 2016).
- Zak, Anatoly. “Russia goes ahead with anti-satellite system”, Russianspaceweb.com (April 30, 2017).
- Data is provided by IntelTrak, a software tool that tracks and visually maps the global business transactions and risk profiles of Chinese and Russian state-owned or -controlled companies on a daily basis
- “China in Patagonia and Space: New Revelations”, Africa and Asia: The Key Issues (April 29, 2017), blog by Robert Rotberg.
- Victor Robert Lee, “China Builds Space-Monitoring Base in the Americas”, The Diplomat (May 4, 2016).
- i.e. Algeria, Brunei Darussalam, Bangladesh, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Eritrea, Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Kenya, Liberia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Namibia, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, Ukraine, Yemen, Zimbabwe (as of September 1, 2017, source IntelTrak).