Escalation of Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine grew markedly sharper this past month. On November 25th Russian FSB guard craft fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval units that passed through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov, transiting between the Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Mariupol. A Russian tanker was also positioned to impede traffic through the Strait. The three Ukrainian vessels and their crews remain in Russian custody. Moscow has discussed the possibility of preferring criminal charges against them for violation of what Russia considers its territorial waters.
The Sea of Azov is immediately to the east of the Crimean Peninsula, which, although occupied by Russia since 2014, remains internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory. A 2004 treaty between Russia and Ukraine agreed that both the Strait and the Sea of Azov would be shared Russo-Ukrainian territorial waters. The Russian attack indicates that Moscow intends to change the facts on the ground.
Ukraine’s President Poroshenko declared martial law in eastern provinces regarded as susceptible to infiltration by Russian irregular units. He also moved to deny entry to Ukraine by Russian males of military age, candidates for the deniable “green men” who made up so many of the Russian semi-regular forces involved in that country’s first incursions into Ukrainian territory. Russia’s President Putin dismissed Poroshenko’s move as mere election-season ploy to shore up what Putin characterized as Poroshenko’s shaky campaign.
In the weeks prior to the naval engagement, Russia had moved a least one battery of short-to-long-range S-400 surface-to-air missiles (NATO reporting name SA-21 “Growler”) into Crimea. This appears to have been an anticipatory move, not declared, but revealed by Western overhead imagery. Since the Kerch Strait incident Russian official media have acknowledged moving short-range Pantsir-S missiles (NATO reporting name SA-22 “Greyhound”) into Crimea. This Moscow represents as a protective response to Ukrainian threats.
Rising tensions between Russia and NATO.
European and US official and unofficial opinion has run strongly against Russia. NATO has expressed concerns over what it characterizes as reckless Russian jamming of GPS signals during Exercise Trident Junction, a large NATO exercise held between October 25th and November 7th. The jamming affected GPS signals in northern Norway and Finland, and NATO charges with reason that the Russian action posed a safety risk to commercial aviation. Russian fighter aircraft are also reported to have adopted increasingly aggressive interception tactics with respect to NATO aircraft operating in international airspace.
EW modernization, convergence with cyber.
The US Department of Defense is working toward developing more effective electronic warfare capabilities. US forces have been relearning lessons about Russian electronic warfare capabilities in the course of operations in Syria (which are reported to have involved firefights between Russian and US units). Russian disruption of tactical communications is thought to have been particular troublesome in that area of operations. The US is working to field more effective defensive and offensive capabilities. These range across the usual spectrum of operations, from purely electromagnetic responses like spread spectrum processing and more powerful jammers through direct physical destruction of Russian communications infrastructure by Marine Recon units and similar forces.
Cyber operations (including information operations) are increasingly seen as representing a discipline so closely allied with electronic warfare that the fields are increasingly treated as having converged. The Air Force is concerned with how they play into air defense. The Army is pushing both cyber and EW units down into brigades, where they would be attached or OPCONed depending on mission and area of operations. Both Services thus seem committed to treating cyber and EW as tactical assets; the Navy and Marine Corps are following a similar path. Signs of this shift are beginning to show up in Army brigade rotations through the National Training Center.
US policy shifts toward more assertive cyber posture.
US policy has grown more assertive in cyberspace. There is a willingness on display to make a whole-of-Government response to cyber threats, as Justice pursues indictments of foreign individuals and organizations for cyberattacks, Treasury levels sanctions for such attacks in advance of trial and conviction, and Homeland Security takes a leading role in coordination civilian cyber defenses. US Cyber Command has also been active. JFT Ares has for some time contributed to targeting and other efforts in the Middle East, and during the recently conducted midterm elections Cyber Command is believed to have intruded into certain Russian networks to deliver pointed warnings to individual officers working on disinformation and influence campaigns. The past month has seen most such measures directed against the familiar four countries most active against US targets: China (largely industrial espionage), Russia (influence operations and battlespace preparation), Iran (espionage and battlespace preparation), and North Korea (opportunistic cybercrime aiming principally at easing the economic effect sanctions are having on the pariah state).
The US Federal acquisition system, slow by design, having been built more for procedural equity and the suppression of fraud than for rapid fielding of new technologies, is widely perceived as an impediment to quick and agile innovation. A recent study concluded that it takes an idea seven years of gestation before it results in a contract, and an undetermined number of years after that before it yields a fielded system. This is contrasted unfavorably with the typical three-year lifecycle found in IT systems. The Department of Defense has sought with mixed success to develop new kinds of contract and grant vehicles that can speed new technology to the warfighter. Some of the Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs) are receiving Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutiny that may in effect push them back into the procurement mainstream,
The Air Force in particular has been experimenting with novel contracting vehicles, going so far as to tout "same-day contracting" in their dealings with small businesses. Such new contracting approaches seem likely to bear earliest fruit in rapid prototyping. ACAT-1 programs are likely to remain as deliberate as ever, possibly with opportunities built into them for more rapid insertion of emerging technologies.
One such large contract is JEDI, the Defense Department's big cloud vehicle. It's widely regarded as having been prepared with Amazon in mind, and this has elicited foreseeable protests from other vendors. An Oracle protest has been shrugged off, but IBM this month filed another protest of the contract. It's not expected to be the last.
DISA is planning to issue three contracts that will cover the mobile services. The agency also offered some advice to vendors: approach DISA with a "tailored" pitch. That is, don't simply describe what you've done in the civilian market, but rather explain how your solution addresses DISA's challenges and can support mission accomplishment and assurance.
Complicating Defense acquisition are new rules (on the whole positive ones) designed to ensure that cybersecurity is designed into new systems from the start, and not appended late in the development cycle as an afterthought. Defense contractors also face newly stringent breach disclosure rules.
There are also obstacles on the civilian side. Some leading technology firms are leery of Defense work on moral or political grounds. Google affords the clearest case of this, as employees have objected to the prospect that Mountain View might deliver intelligence or combat capabilities. The Department of Defense has various initiatives under way designed to overcome such reluctance.
Three-way moon race.
We may be seeing the start of a new moon race. Russia's space agency announced its intention to put a base on the moon in 2040. NASA, not so much countering as making an announcement that seems to have been long in preparation, says it intends to establish a permanently crewed moon base by 2028. And there are suggestions that the private sector might do it cheaper and faster than either: SpaceX in particular, which will test its Dragon capsule in January with an uncrewed flight to the International Space Station, is believed by many to have the will and ability to do it even before NASA. Elon Musk has expressed his intention of personally moving to Mars even if the attempt kills him. That certainly seems an expression of strong commitment, although one must note in this context that Mr. Musk's public display of cannabis use has raised censorious eyebrows in both NASA and the Air Force.
Successful Mars landing.
NASA displayed some technical virtuosity on November 26th, successfully landing its InSight spacecraft on Mars. The lander has begun returning images and other data from the Martian surface. NASA has also placed small CubeSats in orbit around Mars, a move observers say is likely to provide a template for future planetary exploration.
Comsat and ground station news.
SpaceX plans to put a communication satellite constellation into low earth orbit. Starlink, as the constellation will be called, 4409 satellites are planned, and 1584 of those will be in orbit at 550 kilometers, very low for a comsat. But SpaceX regards this as a feature and not a bug. To be sure the satellites will decay more rapidly that those in more conventional orbits, but even so the satellites will have a usable life, and their relatively swift decay will reduce the amount of orbital junk they inflict on space. They will also offer a shorter send-and-receive cycle, with a ping time of about 15 milliseconds. On November 15th the FCC voted to approve SpaceX's plans to put up 11,943 broadband communication satellites. The company intends to begin flying the satellites as early as next year.
Inmarsat has enhanced the cybersecurity of its offerings for the maritime industry. Fleet Secure Endpoint will deploy security solutions from ESET in a form compatible with Inmarsat's Fleet Xpress, FleetBroadband, and Fleet One offerings. The company is also introducing Fleet Secure Cyber Awareness, a training app for mobile devices that's designed to increase the security awareness of maritime operators.
Amazon Web Services has introduced, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, satellite ground stations as-a-service. The new AWS offering will be built on Lockheed Martin's Verge network of ground stations. There's some concern in industry that the new offering will freeze out smaller providers of ground stations.
Space force updates.
The US Administration seems determined to push ahead with plans for a Space Force. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has outlined several forms such a force might take, and assigned what appear to be reasonable estimates of each option's cost over the first five years:
- Option 1: Space Corps. This would be built around the existing 14th Air Force, with major components including the 21st Space Wing (Peterson AFB), 30th Space Wing (Vandenberg AFB), 45th Space Wing (Patrick AFB), 50th Space Wing (Schriever AFB), and 460th Space Wing (Buckley AFB). Annual budget $11.3 billion.
- Option 2: Space Force-Lite. Everything in Option 1 above, plus the Army's 1st Space Brigade (Fort Carson), Navy Program Executive Office Space Systems (SPAWAR San Diego), and Navy Satellite Operations Center (Naval Air Station Point Mugu). Annual budget $13.4 billion.
- Option 3: Space Force-Heavy. Everything in Option 2 above, with the addition of the Army’s 100th Missile Defense Brigade (Fort Greely and Vandenberg AFB), and those parts of the Missile Defense Agency that work on "space situational awareness and mid-course intercept capabilities that can be used as anti-satellite and defensive counterspace weapons." A small satcom group from DISA would also be included. Annual budget $21.5 billion.
The US Air Force is ramping up its own space-related training programs. There are comparable international moves. China, for one, has avowed its intention to extend it's air force's "reach" into space.
North Korea seems to have resumed developing and testing of nuclear strike systems. The US has continued to work on reimposing sanctions against Iran for that country's nuclear program. The US is also in the process of withdrawing from the INF treaty with Russia, citing a Russian record of cheating and noncompliance. In response Russia has made noises about abandoning a no-first-strike policy that goes back to Soviet days. This is not particularly shocking, as no serious observers ever took that declared policy seriously.
The blockchain goes to the asteroid belt?
In what must count as a harmonic convergence of speculative enthusiasms, ConSensys, a blockchain company that offers solutions based on the Ethereum platform, has purchased the assets of Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining concern. Oh, Asgardia, which is a venture that represents itself as a sovereign space-based nation, has also announced plans to establish an independent data storage platform in space, whence it will trade its own cryptocurrency, the "Solar."