Return to

May 18, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. military satellites in crisis as foreign weapons advance and proliferate
The U.S. military’s satellite communications are facing a crisis, threatened by a growing array of foreign weapons, including cyberattack capabilities, lasers, electronic jammers and anti-satellite weapons, according to a Pentagon study.

An executive summary of the report by the Defense Science Board warns that military satellite communications used for global operations “will be contested by a myriad of effects ranging from reversible to destructive.”

“The estimated and projected electronic threats against satellite communication (satcom) have rapidly escalated in the last few years and will continue to increase in the foreseeable future,” the report says.

“Advances and proliferation in advanced electronic warfare (EW), kinetic, space, and cyber capabilities threaten our ability to maintain information superiority,” the study notes, adding that “under severe stress situations, jamming can render all commercial satcom and most defense Satcom inoperable.”

“This reality should be considered a crisis to be dealt with immediately,” the summary warns.

Satellite communications network operations in conflict or crisis situations “can be spotty to non-existent,” the report said. In addition to vulnerabilities to attack and disruption, current ground control stations used to relay communications are limited to “a few tens of users” and lack anti-jamming capabilities.

The report called for increased connections and protection to handle increased traffic.

The Defense Science Board recommended speeding up the production and the numbers of advanced extremely high frequency communications terminals for bombers and command-and-control aircraft. Other needed improvements include accelerating delivery of new, hardened tactical communications systems for the military.

The report, “Task Force Report on Military Satellite Communication and Tactical Networking,” was made public in March and was based on a yearlong assessment of military satellite systems.

“Our nation’s missions around the globe are enabled by robust military satellite communication (milsatcom) and tactical networks,” the report states.

The report comes as China and Russia are developing advanced electronic warfare capabilities designed to disrupt U.S. military communications, currently a major strategic advantage, during a conflict.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a major military restructuring in April and said the reforms would include a greater focus on electronic warfare to transform the People’s Liberation Army into an “indestructible combat force” by 2020, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Also in April, Russia’s Vesti online news portal reported that Russia’s Electronic Warfare troops were preparing to attack and disable U.S. weapons systems “without firing a shot.”

“Our REW troops can detect and neutralize any target from a ship’s system and a radar, to a satellite,” the report said.

During congressional testimony earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said China and Russia are boosting space warfare capabilities.

“We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” Mr. Coats told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti-satellite weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness,” he added, noting China’s creation in late 2015 of the PLA Strategic Support Force for military space and cyberspace programs.

Russia and China are developing weapons to challenge the U.S. at the same time they are promoting the non-weaponization of space and a policy calling for no-first-placement of arms in space, Mr. Coats said.

U.S. intelligence agencies are seeking ways to develop artificial intelligence programs that may one day replace human analysts.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced this week that it is offering a $500,000 prize for the best means of using artificial intelligence to transform the controversial intelligence analysis process.

U.S. intelligence analysis, a major part of the $50-billion-a-year intelligence bureaucracy, has been under fire for years from critics who say analysts lack competence or have been politicized, resulting in a string of failures. Intelligence consumers often complain that secret analyses are often no more useful than public news reporting.

Recent intelligence failures partly to blame on faulty analysis include:

• A decadeslong failure to accurately assess China’s large-scale military buildup.

• The failure to accurately assess Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.

• Failure to predict that the Arab Spring uprisings would undermine the al Qaeda terrorist group.

• Missing signs that Russia would intervene militarily in Syria.

• Failures to counter domestic terrorists like those in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, who were identified and investigated prior to their attacks.

• Incorrectly forecasting that North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, would likely be more moderate than his father.

Because most intelligence analysis is secret, the record of analytical failures is not widely known. Congress, when it has reviewed intelligence failures, also frequently does not publicize the results.

Prior to taking office, President Trump was critical of U.S. intelligence agencies. In December, he said of the analysis of Russian influence operations targeting the election, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

The DNI said in a statement Monday that it is launching the automated analysis challenge called Xpress.

The idea behind the program is to “explore AI-based opportunities for generating analytic products that surpass those crafted by traditional, highly trained [intelligence community] analysts.”

The program seeks cutting-edge methodologies and tools that will speed up the process of providing intelligence to policymakers.

“Given the pace and breadth of international activity, the [intelligence community’s] analytic community is increasingly challenged to provide policymakers and warfighters with timely information and analysis on a growing number of targets and issues,” said David Isaacson, the program’s manager.

The goal is to speed up the process of producing and reviewing intelligence analyses.

More than 245 companies, organizations and academic institutions are taking part. The participants range from multinational corporations to high schools from 24 countries. The submissions will seek creative ways of producing analyses and disseminating them.

According to the statement, the contest seeks to produce “innovative algorithms” using news reports to identify the national security impact on an intelligence problem.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to