The Pentagon just made its biggest investment yet into a project to build new satellites in space by reusing the parts of dead satellites.
The Defense Department relies on satellites to do everything from passing secret messages around the globe to giving troops navigation information and intelligence. The problem is, getting brand-new satellites into space can be an incredibly expensive and time-consuming effort.
To remedy this, the Pentagon wants to harvest parts from the roughly $300 billion worth of dead satellites that sit in a heavenly "graveyard or disposal orbit" and use their spare parts to build new ones, Frankenstein style, under a project called Phoenix. A roughly $40 million Phoenix contract was handed out earlier this week to a California company called NovaWurks.
While the Pentagon says the tech being developed for Phoenix is meant to save money, tech that allows a satellite to tear an old satellite apart could just as easily be used to attack a new one.
If you think any of this sounds far-fetched, it's worth noting that China is suspected to have used a satellite to grab at least one other in space last week. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force's secret X-37B robot space plane is believed by many to be used to get up close and personal with orbiting satellites. The X-37B stays aloft for months at a time, and amateur satellite trackers have seen it dramatically changing its orbits in space. Such maneuvers could point to the craft cozying up to various foreign satellites with the purpose of spying on them, according to some observers.
"The Phoenix program envisions developing a new class of small 'Satlets', or nano-satellites," which could be launched as "a 'ride along' on a commercial satellite launch, and then attached to the antenna of a non-operational cooperating satellite robotically, essentially creating a new" satellite, reads a 2011 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announcement.
To do this, a separate "tender" or "satellite-servicing spacecraft" will be built and launched into space, where it will meet up with the commercial spacecraft carrying the Satlets. This tender will use "grasping mechanical arms for removing the Satlets and components" from the box the Satlets were carried inside. The tender will then use "unique robotic tools to be developed in the program" to find an old satellite, scavenge parts from it, and attach them to the Satlet. (Check out the video at the end of this piece for a demo of the robot claws that are being developed for the Phoenix satellites.)
The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to get control of those pesky cyber weapons that are available for purchase by just about anyone by establishing an arms control regime along the lines of what's done for missiles, tanks, and fighter jets.
The powerful congressional panel is looking for the President to "develop policy to control the proliferation of cyber weapons through unilateral and cooperative export controls, law enforcement activities, financial means, diplomatic engagement, and other means," according to the committee's report on the 2014 defense budget bill.
"The approaches developed must also take into account the needs of legitimate cybersecurity professionals to mitigate vulnerabilities, and not stifle innovation in tools and technology that are necessary for national security and the cybersecurity of the Nation," the report goes on to say.
Everyone is concerned by the ever-growing online market for cyber weapons, from the Russians to some of the most senior officials working cyber in the Pentagon (even as the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command are accused of driving this market by purchasing these weapons). However, the last time the U.S. tried to control sales of a critical class of software, it failed.
We already knew that the U.S. spy agencies collect all kinds on Americans, thanks to leaked documents from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Now, in a fresh leak, we're learning that Brits are snooping on us, too -- tapping the world's telephone and Internet traffic, and sharing that info with the United States.
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain's version of the NSA, is allowed to tap more than 200 fiber-optic data cables running through British territory, giving the organization access massive amounts of telephone and Internet data, according to the Guardian, who revealed today that Snowden provided it with a document detailing the UK spy agencies efforts to collect phone and web data.
GCHQ cable taps allow it to gather recordings of phone calls, email content, Facebook entries and any Internet users web browsing history -- not exactly the anonymous metadata that we've been hearing about on the U.S. side of the Atlantic.
What's not surprising is that the UK shares this information with NSA. Remember, the two nations have their 70-year old "special relationship" and are the founding members of the Five-Eyes intelligence sharing agreement, formally known as the UKUSA agreement (pronounced you-kooza). The Five-Eyes are members of a special club of former British colonies that gather and share super secret signals intelligence with each other -- exactly the type of information gathered by NSA and GCHQ. Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the other three members of this little club that was established by secret treaty during World War II.
How sensitive is the information shared between members? Rumor has it that until 1973, Australian prime ministers weren't even told about the program.
Top Pentagon brass have been ambivalent in the extreme about getting involved in the Syrian crisis since it began more than two years ago. And now, even as the Obama administration signals its intention to provide direct military aid to opponents of the Syrian regime, there remains deep skepticism across the military that it will work.
With some notable exceptions, top brass believe arming Syrian rebels, creating a no-fly zone and intervening in other ways militarily, amounts to a risky approach with enormous costs that won't likely give the Syrian opposition the lift it needs. The announcement Thursday from the White House that its intelligence now confirms that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons signaled the Obama administration's apparent plan to lean forward militarily in Syria. But it does not appear to be the result of any change of thinking in the military.
While no one is talking about sending boots on the ground, top brass is extremely reluctant to commit assets. For example, senior military officers believe arming rebels, long one of the most popular initiatives among Syrian interventionists, will result in those arms getting into the wrong hands sooner or later. "There is no way to ensure their safeguarding and recovery procedures in the event the weapons are stolen or lost and end up in the wrong hands," one senior military officer said, speaking on an issue with which he is familiar but on which he isn't authorized to speak publicly.
Creating a no-fly zone sounds good on paper, military officials say, and might help to give a morale boost to the opposition. But it represents little more than a symbolic strategy meant to show the Assad regime that the U.S. and its allies want to contain the conflict. But if one of President Bashar al-Assad's aircraft are shot down, then what, military officials ask. Indeed, the military only sees the political costs to creating a no-fly zone and few of the benefits. Besides, some believe that since the Syrian regime isn't making heavy use of its air assets in its efforts to tighten its grip on the uprising negates the purpose of a no-fly zone.
Forget the small arms. If the White House really wants to alter the course of the Syrian civil war, it may well need to impose a no-fly zone. The good news is it probably won't be too hard to pull off, given the battered state of Assad's air defenses. The bad news is it could drag the U.S. into a wider war.
Bashar al-Assad's air force that has conducted between 115 and 141 air strikes a month from January through April of this year, largely with old Czechoslovakian-made L-39 Delfin trainer jets and helicopters such as the Soviet-designed Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-24.
The weapons may be old, but many analysts believe that they've made a crucial difference as pro-regime troops have seized the momentum in Syria's civil war. Some in the U.S. government are pushing for a total no-fly zone similar to the one imposed on Libya in 2011 in order to take out that air force.
(The map above shows the location of Assad's main air bases - the prime targets of any American campaign to limit Assad's power to strike from the sky.Let us know if we're missing any.)
On Friday, Anthony Cordesman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies said that anything less than (a pretty darn expensive) no-fly zone that totally grounds Assad's air force would be a "half-pregnant" solution similar to "supplying too few arms of too few lethality," as the U.S. and other nations have been said to be doing secretly for months without giving the rebels enough of an advantage to overthrow Assad.
A full-on no-fly zone would involve the U.S. and any other nations launching a high end assault with everything from B-2 stealth bombers to submarine and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at destroying Assad's radars, missile sites and air defense control networks. It'd be similar to what was done at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn, only bigger due to the fact that Syria has a much better air defense network than Libya did. Once these door-kickers have taken out the most dangerous elements of Syria's air defenses, other strike fighters such as U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Vipers -- some of which are already in neighboring Jordan --, and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F/A-18 Hornets would then be relatively free to hunt down and destroy Assad's aircraft on the ground or in the air.
House committee intelligence leaders today revealed the government is looking into whether or not National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is working for a foreign intelligence agency.
"He's already done serious harm and he's stating things that are, candidly, not correct. Clearly, we're going to make sure that there's a thorough scrub of what his China connections are, and there's a lot of questions there that seem unusual," said Rep. Mike Rogers (shown above), chair of the House intelligence committee after a closed-door briefing from NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander on the Agency's classified programs that are said to be gathering telephone and Internet metadata on Americans.
"It seems unusual that he would be in China and asking for protection of the Chinese government and giving press conferences to Chinese media," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger, the committee's ranking Democrat. "We're going to investigate."
However, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, told reporters hours later that, "we have no indication that [Snowden] is connected with the Chinese."
Still, "he's in Hong Kong so obviously we're concerned about it," said Chambliss after a separate Capitol Hill briefing on the matter for 47 Senators by Alexander, Director of Natonal Intelligence James Clapper and five other senior intelligence community officials.
Rogers said that Snowden was a "low-level individual, but because of his position in the IT system, had access to information that, candidly, he did not understand or have the full scope of what these programs were."
Chambliss said the goverment needs to revamp the way it screens people with access to highly-classified information.
"I think it's pretty clear that we've got to do a better job of making sure that a top secret clearance would go to only those people that deserve it and that we monitor all of those people who have a top secret clearance from time to time and we reveiw their cases to determine whether there's any reason to suspect they may have compromised U.S. intelligence in some way," said Chambliss. "I think there are some changes that we're gonna look at."
Snowden has publicly denied being "a traitor" despite his choice to flee to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong. "I acted in good faith," he said.
With the U.S. flying B-2 stealth bombers, F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, and B-52 bombers over the Korean Peninsula, we thought we'd give you a quick run-down on the air defenses these jets could face if the Korean War ever went into Round Two.
Sure, North Korea is said to have one of the densest air defense networks on Earth. But it's largely made up of 1950s-, ‘60s-, and ‘70s-vintage Soviet-designed missiles and radars -- the type of weapons that the U.S. military has been working on defeating for decades via a combination of radar jamming, anti-radar missiles, and stealth technology. In fact, the B-2 and F-22 were designed in the 1980s and 1990s specifically to evade such defenses, and the ancient B-52s could simply fire AGM-86 cruise missiles at North Korea from well beyond the range of the country's air defenses.
Let's take a look at the missiles in the North's air defense system that have claimed U.S. fighters in conflicts around the globe since 1990. (Keep in mind that hundreds of these missiles have been fired at U.S. forces in the last 23 years with only a handful of losses.) All of these systems are of Soviet origin -- some were actually built in the USSR and others were license-made in North Korea. (Note, for this post we're not even looking at the radars, antiaicraft guns and some of the older shoulder-fired missiles the North Koreans have)
SA-2 Guideline: The SA-2 is famous for downing Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960, and it would go on to claim dozens of U.S. planes during the Vietnam War. North Korea may (may is the key word there) have up to 1,950 of these missiles. Although old, Iraqi SA-2s did manage to take out a U.S. Navy F-14A+ and an F-15E Strike Eagle during the 1991 Gulf War. The SA-2 was adopted by militaries around the globe during the Cold War and has a range of 28 miles and a maximum altitude of 28,000 feet. Even with upgrades, these missiles won't be too effective against American planes.
SA-6 Gainful: There are unconfirmed reports that the North has an unknown number of these missiles. The SA-6 is sometimes nicknamed "the three fingers of death" because it has three missiles laid out next to each other on the launcher. The SA-6 is also a 1960s-vintage design (in service since the 1970s) that can be defeated relatively easily with modern jamming and missiles that lock onto the radar beams emitted by many surface-to-air missile batteries. Still, an SA-6 shot down a U.S. Air Force F-16 over Iraq in 1991 and another F-16 over Bosnia in 1996. However, some accounts claim that, during the Kosovo air war of 1999, Yugoslav forces fired 477 SA-6s without a single kill.
SA-3 Goa: This is another Soviet-designed missile from the 1960s that has taken down a handful of modern U.S. fighters. The North is said to have up to 32 batteries of these missiles with at least six sites -- equipped with concrete bunkers to protect the missiles and their radar -- protecting Pyongyang (as of 2010, anyway). An SA-3 shot down a U.S. F-16 over Iraq in 1991. During the Kosovo war, a Yugoslav army SA-3 famously scored history's only kill against a stealth jet when its crew got lucky and spotted a U.S. Air Force F-117 Night Hawk stealth fighter while the jet's bomb-bay doors were open, briefly ruining the jet's stealthy shape. (It didn't help that the F-117s had flown the same routes on their attack runs so many times that the defenders could predict where they would be.) Later that year, another Yugoslav SA-3 shot down a U.S. F-16 over Serbia.
SA-13 Gopher: This is a mobile, low-altitude, heat-seeking missile system designed in the 1970s to protect Soviet ground forces from close-air support runs by Western jets. SA-13s shot down two U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs during the 1991 Gulf War. (Again, there are only unconfirmed reports the North has these.) Keep in mind that the A-10 flies low and slow while hunting ground targets, making it exactly the type of plane the SA-13 is meant to counter. (The SA-13 reportedly hit a total of 27 coalition jets during the Gulf War, downing 14, but besides the A-10s those jets were older, Vietnam War-vintage planes.)
SA-16 Gimlets: The North Koreans reportedly have hundreds of these 1980s-vintage, shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles, which like the SA-3s are meant to protect ground troops from low-level attacks. Iraqi forces downed three A-10 Warthogs during the Gulf War using Gimlets. (The SA-16 has evolved into the SA-24 Grinch, one of the most feared shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.)
Finally, here are a few systems North Korea has -- or may have -- that haven't downed U.S. jets but that are still worth noting.
The SA-4 Ganef: This is a fierce-looking, mobile system from the 1960s meant to shoot down high-flying bombers. The SA-4 has a range of about 34 miles and can reportedly reach altitudes of around 80,000-feet. Still, it's been retired by most operators and is only in use by a few former Soviet republics and possibly North Korea.
SA-5 Gammon: The North may have up to 40 batteries of this old design meant to shoot down high-flying bombers at long ranges. The SA-5 was introduced in the mid-1960s and is largely a fixed system, meaning it's difficult to hide from U.S. fighters equipped with anti-radar missiles -- though the North supposedly has them hidden in concrete bunkers. Their fixed status also means that they can simply be avoided by strike aircraft. One of the strengths of the SA-5 is that the system can be plugged into a variety of radars, improving its ability to find targets. It should be noted however, that both Syria and Libya employ or employed such missiles. They didn't do much to help Muammar al-Qaddafi against the NATO air campaign of 2011, and they didn't prevent Israel from destroying a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 (though the latter operation reportedly used a cyber strike to blind Syrian radars to the presence of Israeli jets).
SA-17 Gadfly: This system is nicknamed "four fingers of death" since, you guessed it, it's got four missiles laid out next to each other on the launcher. The North Koreans may have hundreds of these missiles (though this is unconfirmed and some dispute whether they have any), which were developed by the Soviets in the 1970s and largely fielded in the 1980s. The SA-17 reportedly has a range of about 19 miles and an altitude of 46,000 feet. Both the missile launcher and its radar system are mobile, meaning they can try to hide from enemy bombers. The SA-17 system is used by lots of countries with fairly robust air defenses, such as China, India, and Iran (which reportedly developed a knock-off version). Georgia was able to down several Russian jets, including a TU-22M strategic bomber/reconnaissance jet, with SA-17s during the 2008 war there. Meanwhile, Israeli warplanes took out a convoy of Syrian SA-17s that were supposedly being shipped to Hezbollah in January.
China may have kicked off a research program aimed at developing nuclear reactors to power its future aircraft carriers.
A report posted on the website of the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) on Feb. 19 stated that the Ministry of Science and Technology has formally kicked off an effort to develop nuclear power plants for ships. Interestingly, that post has been taken down after it was viewed 682 times.
Luckily for us, a cached version of the page can still be seen here. This is a (very) rough translation of the key sentence on the site:
The Ministry of Science and Technology's nuclear power shipping critical technology and safety research Project 863 and small-scale nuclear reactor generation technology and its application demonstration supporting technology project has formally been set up.
While the report doesn't say anything about aircraft carriers, CSIC is the firm that turned the hulk of the former Soviet ship Varyag into the Chinese navy's first carrier, the Liaoning. China is supposedly working to field at least two more carriers in the next decade.
It should be noted that China already has a fleet of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines. This article in the South China Morning Post, which first reported the new reactor program, points out that building a nuclear carrier may be the next logical step for the Chinese navy. Still, Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation studies downplayed the significance of the new program, saying that Chinese engineers could simply put larger versions of their existing submarine reactors into carriers.
"They might wish to make [the reactor] more powerful, but that's easy as they don't have to shoehorn it into a submarine," Lewis told Killer Apps.
All of the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers and submarines are nuclear powered. The key advantage of nuclear powered ships is that they don't have to refuel nearly as often as conventionally fueled vessels -- think decades rather than months. (On a side note, naval nuclear reactors tend to use highly enriched uranium, the same stuff that's key to making nuclear weapons.)
China's planed homemade carriers are said to be based on the Liaoning's design and will incorporate lessons learned from operating the "starter carrier," as she has been called. Media reports have suggested that the first two locally built carriers will be conventionally-powered and enter service around 2015, with a third nuclear-powered vessel possibly entering service around 2020.
The Liaoning was launched in Ukraine as the Varyag in 1988, but construction ceased by 1992 due to the fall of the Soviet Union. She sat in a Ukrainian shipyard for a decade, eventually gutted of engines, electrical systems, and combat equipment. China bought the hulk from Ukraine in 1999, saying that it planned on turning the ship into a casino. In 2002, the Varyag was towed from the Black Sea to China and was refitted. In 2011, she put to sea under her own power for the first time. Last November, Chinese fighters made their first landings and takeoffs from the Liaoning's deck. So much for that casino.
In light of the Gmail-related scandal involving former CIA chief David Petraeus, one has to wonder if, given the relative ease by which an intelligence agency -- or just about anybody -- can break into a private email account, government officials entrusted with the nation's most sensitive information should be allowed to keep personal email accounts while in office?
True, Petraeus' email was never actually broken into or hacked by the FBI. Agents gained access to his naughty notes by monitoring Paula Broadwell's email and then asking Broadwell if she was having an affair with Petraeus. She fessed up and gave them access to her computer and with it, even more of his emails. Nevertheless, the very revelation that our nation's top spy used at least one relatively unsecure Gmail account has prompted people to raise the above question.
I recall being surprised whenever one of Petraeus retired predecessors would reply to my emails from an AOL email account (insert 'they still exist' joke here) or something equally pedestrian. It just seems a little odd that people with access to incredible secrets use the same email services the rest of us do. (Granted, the former officials I email with have been out of office for years, sometimes decades. But don't you just expect former spy chiefs to use some tricked out, semi-creepy, super-secret email? Maybe that's just me.)
If hacked, these emails could reveal plenty about the personal lives of their owners who hold high office. Hackers probably wouldn't find state secrets, but they could find plenty of personal information -- travel plans, info about friends and family, online purchases, bank accounts, the list goes on and on. As Google knows for business purposes, a look at someone's email can paint a pretty valuable picture of who they are. Google uses this information to sell ads tailored to your interests. You can imagine what spies would do with it.
Still, there are questions about what type of service officials could use -- perhaps something like Hushmail or TigerText or some NSA-furnished email -- and how effective it would be. Would these texts and emails be monitored by the FBI for intrusions? (This would raise some interesting privacy issues, especially for the acquaintances of the government officials.) Even if top U.S. government officials use secure services for their personal emails and texts, is it realistic to assume that their personal information could be kept safe if their acquaintances are using unsecure email and texting services?
One noted IT security expert familiar with the intelligence world that I spoke with said that while it's surprising that officials such as CIA directors use Gmail and similar email clients, it would be challenging to develop a secure method for them to transmit private information.
"I don't really think the government has the ability to deploy something like that, and one of the reasons why people use these [private] systems is they don't want that same level of monitoring going on with their private emails that they would get under any government supplied system," said the expert.
The expert recommended that CIA directors and the like take a page from private business executives' playbook and use Gmail's two-step authentication system, which is, according to him much more secure than competitors such as Yahoo (the result of a major hack Google suffered in 2009), and then hire an outside company to scan their laptops, smartphones, and tablets for intrusions every few days. "You tell ‘em, 'Don't log into the hotel PC, don't log into the airport kiosk, none of that kind of stuff.'"
These frequent scans are vitally important since they will be one of the only ways to protect against spear-phishing attacks by foreign intelligence agencies that have hijacked the email accounts of a VIP's acquaintances.
At the end of the day, the expert reiterated, public officials should simply keep sensitive info out of their email.
"What could somebody find if they just logged into your email one day," he said. "Is your social security number in any of the emails, your tax return? I go through periodically and I just purge everything I can find."
One government official who seems to get this is Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who doesn't use email, partially out of concerns about its vulnerability to hacking.
A quick update on China's stealth fighter program: Photos newly published on a Chinese Web sites show what might be a third prototype J-20 stealth jet.
China has two different types of stealthy-looking fighters: the large J-20 and the smaller J-31. Many speculate that because of its large size, the J-20 is high-speed interceptor designed to fly out and shoot down enemy bombers -- similar to the old Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat -- or that it is a high-speed stealthy bomber designed to use a combination of stealth and speed to penetrate enemy air defenses and fire cruise missiles or bombs at targets such as bases or ships.
The latest photos show a J-20 with open compartments on the forward sections of its fuselage, which may contain avionics, communications gear or sensors. It is also worth noting that the third aircraft appears to have a different nose radome than its sibling J-20s, meaning that this jet may also contain an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. All of this suggests the Chinese may be testing the sensors it plans to include on production J-20s. Still, without confirmation from the Chinese air force, this is pure speculation.
Photos of the first two J-20 prototypes, dubbed J-20 2001 and J-20 2002, have been appearing on Chinese Web forums for nearly two years, with the first jet making its maiden flight in early 2011.
The smaller J-31, revealed in September, appears to blatantly copy the shape of two American-made fighters: Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (It's worth pointing out that Lockheed's F-35 program was badly hacked several years ago. Loads of information was stolen, forcing a costly and time consuming redesign of several systems.) Little is known about the J-31 or what it will be used for.
Click here for more images of the possible third J-20.
Chinese Internet, China Defense Blog
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.