• A United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Heavy rocket launches a National Reconnaissance Office payload into orbit from Cape Canaveral. While the U.S. intelligence community will continue to rely on government space assets, it will increasingly tap the commercial sector for innovative products and services.
     A United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Heavy rocket launches a National Reconnaissance Office payload into orbit from Cape Canaveral. While the U.S. intelligence community will continue to rely on government space assets, it will increasingly tap the commercial sector for innovative products and services.

Intelligence Confronts Space Vulnerabilities

September 1, 2018
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Commercial technologies may hold the key to overcoming tougher adversaries.


The next sector to benefit from commercial space technology spinoffs could be the intelligence community. Facing a growing threat to its mission capabilities in orbit, the community is weighing several options to prevent adversaries from denying the use of vital systems, including national technical assets. At the same time, plans are in the works for the next generation of space-based intelligence assets.

Among the options is a greater reliance on commercial technologies to ensure space system survivability. The intelligence community is already working to exploit private-sector innovations, and future developments offer the potential to change the U.S. national security space architecture.

David Honey, intelligence community senior scientist, notes that while the United States knows that space architecture is vital for national security purposes, adversaries also recognize that value. Potential attacks on space capabilities are of great concern to the intelligence community, he adds.

“Our adversaries have a pretty strong understanding of how valuable our architecture is to us,” Honey states. “It’s natural to expect they are going to look increasingly for ways to try to deny us access to that architecture.

“The idea that satellites can be attacked, that they can be denied to any country that is dependent on them, has been out there for quite some time,” he continues.

The intelligence community’s dependence on space is a major concern for national security. Many exercises run by the U.S. Defense Department and related agencies explore the consequences of doing without space assets and capabilities. Concepts examined over the years have addressed how to deal with that issue, Honey relates.

One approach is to rapidly reconstitute a lost space capability. Honey cites as one of the boldest initiatives underway the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Blackjack program, which is tapping industry to develop resilient low-earth-orbit constellations. Other agencies are experimenting with small satellites (smallsats), including diminutive cubesats, to add to space capability resilience.

Honey names “the democratization of technology” and the growth of science and technology capabilities worldwide as the leading causes of increased national space vulnerability. More and more countries are acquiring space capabilities that give them greater wherewithal in orbit.

“We’re not the only country today that understands the connection between research and development and national power,” he emphasizes. “For any domain—space probably being one of the most easily understood—that ability for any country to invest and see results is now much more widely available.”

But the concerns of the intelligence community about space are not limited to its own capabilities. Honey relates that space-based assets have a major impact on the U.S. economy as well as public safety. “Disruptions to that architecture could have monumental concerns not just for the United States and its national security concerns but also for our allies and other countries,” he declares.

Global positioning systems are key to many economic activities, and their disruption could be devastating to an economy. Honey points out that an adversary would have to weigh the costs and benefits to engage in this type of warlike activity.

“We will always have to be vigilant and monitoring what our adversaries’ intentions are,” he declares. This vigilance includes knowing about the science and technology developments adversaries are generating and understanding how they could affect all U.S. intelligence systems—not just those in space.

Honey continues that, during the Cold War, the United States possessed some element of world leadership in every technology, whether in defense laboratories, federal research centers or commercial research and development facilities. “We really had a lock on pretty much everything,” he relates. “Today, in the space arena, we’re increasingly seeing a lot of great activity going on in labs around the world. We need to be concerned; we need to have the appropriate research and development investment to ensure we maintain that competitive edge.”

One laboratory supported by CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel (IQT) is CosmiQ Works, designed to explore how the U.S. government can leverage new and emerging space capabilities against national security problems. The IQT lab has classified three generations of capabilities. It defines Space 1.0 as government exquisite systems such as National Reconnaissance Office satellites; Space 2.0 as commercial exquisite systems that tend to be large and expensive; and Space 3.0 as today’s commercial startups. The hallmark of Space 3.0 is commercial scalability, which Honey states, offers a “tremendous growth and technical opportunity for the U.S. national security community.”

He explains that many commercial solutions from Space 1.0 and 2.0 featured nonrecoverable engineering that went into capable but very expensive systems. The United States will still want to have the government exquisite capability it uses to great effect, but commercial scalability solutions will provide broadened functionality and resiliency.

Both innovation and redundancy can help solve challenges from space adversaries. Redundancy always is a solution to interruption or denial of service, even when an adversary is not involved. But scalability can be a problem when relying on redundancy, Honey points out. With this in mind, commercial innovations may provide the types of solutions the intelligence community needs, he says.

“Innovative thinking, even applying old tools in new ways to catch our adversaries off guard, is all fair game,” Honey reflects. “If we can come up with an approach that gets us what we need, but at the same time demonstrates to an adversary that they cannot meaningfully degrade our intelligence capabilities by attacking our space systems, then that’s a win for us.”

At the core of the intelligence community are customers that depend on its products. Working with these customers, the community will better understand how commercial solutions will evolve, especially for familiar products, Honey says. The community aims to find ways of extracting information from those commercial systems for future intelligence tools, which would help it develop more robust insight into global events. He predicts great growth opportunities for these adaptations of commercial technologies.

This next wave of innovation will emerge from artificial intelligence and machine learning communities. Large intelligence constellations will become more feasible to operate and maintain, and their activities will be more optimized, Honey describes. Machine learning will allow fusing different types of data to develop insights for faster human decision making, which is an advantage the community must strive for, he says.

Selecting commercial technologies depends on close consideration of future performance, Honey points out. In many cases, commercial hardware might deliver unprecedented performance, but predicting what will work best is difficult. “As technology democratizes, it’s not only what’s invented here in the United States but also what’s invented overseas that we’re mindful of,” he emphasizes. “The capabilities that will appear in the commercial world could accelerate faster than we’ve ever seen before.”

Initially, this rapid innovation will come from among the many startups looking to exploit the commercial space market—Space 3.0, Honey posits. The intelligence community will aim to leverage their products and services. Some of these startups are attempting to provide types of intelligence services that generate finished knowledge for their customers. These firms “would move up the food chain,” he says, by providing information that explains its meaning and even recommends a course of action. Government intelligence experts will see how these services play out in the commercial world and look to adapt them for their own missions, Honey states.

Because these companies have to turn a profit, they will operate on a scale that is hard for the intelligence community to duplicate, he continues. “Whatever products they come out with, they probably will be available to us at better quality and lower price. However, it could be that their customer base is not asking the same kind of questions that we’re asking, so we will need to figure out what sort of key intelligence questions we have. And can those various data and information feeds satisfy our demands?” Honey asks. This will indicate whether a commercial solution is not viable for a specific niche or whether the community must modify the solution or work with a company to customize it for government needs.

Complementing these private-sector initiatives are ongoing government programs. The intelligence community has “a wealth of great programs” that represent investments in future capabilities, Honey offers. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), DARPA and In-Q-Tel are at the forefront of these efforts, and the military services and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) also are heavily invested in future intelligence technologies. He notes that his home agency is DARPA, and he is on a joint duty assignment to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

These government research programs include launch vehicles, satellite constellations, on-orbit servicing and new sensor technologies. Other efforts focus on future enabling technologies such as advanced electronics. The community’s expertise in data fusion will come into play as data from different sources is melded into a synergistic combination that constitutes unique intelligence.

Among the technical areas the intelligence community is looking at closely is cyber, which Honey describes as “one of active engagement for us.” A related focus is the digital infrastructure, especially its future requirements. As the commercial world embraces multicloud capabilities, the intelligence community is watching how it develops tools and techniques to work across boundaries and ensure resilience.

In addition to emphasizing the need for research and development, Honey warns that the United States also needs the correct mechanisms to bring innovative technologies to fruition. These include technology transfer mechanisms, manufacturing capabilities, field sustainment and other life-cycle functions, and procedures to ensure meaningful use by customers.

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