178. Space: Challenges and Opportunities

[Editor’s Note:  The U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC) and Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) co-sponsored the Mad Scientist Disruption and the Operational Environment Conference with the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin on 24-25 April 2019 in Austin, Texas. Today’s post is excerpted from this conference’s Final Report (see link at the end of this post), addressing how the Space Domain is becoming increasingly crowded, given that the community of spacefaring entities now comprises more than 90 nations, as well as companies such as Amazon, Google, and Alibaba.  This is particularly significant to the Army as it increasingly relies on space-based assets to support long-range precision fires and mission command.  Read on to learn how this space boom will create operational challenges for the Army, while simultaneously yield advances in autonomy that will ultimately benefit military applications in the other operational domains. (Note: Some of the embedded links in this post are best accessed using non-DoD networks.)]

Everybody wants to launch satellites

Space has the potential to become the most strategically important domain in the Operational Environment. Today’s maneuver Brigade Combat Team (BCT) has over 2,500 pieces of equipment dependent on space-based assets for Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT).1 This number is only going to increase as emerging technology on Earth demands increased bandwidth, new orbital infrastructure, niche satellite capabilities, and advanced robotics.

Image made from models used to track debris in Low Earth Orbit / Source: NASA Earth Observatory; Wikimedia Commons

Low Earth Orbit is cluttered with hundreds of thousands of objects, such as satellites, debris, and other refuse that can pose a hazard to space operations, and only one percent of these objects are tracked.2  This complexity is further exacerbated by the fact that there are no universally recognized “space traffic rules” and no standard operating procedures. Additionally, there is a space “gold rush” with companies and countries racing to launch assets into orbit at a blistering pace. The FCC has granted over 7,500 satellite licenses for SpaceX alone over the next five years, and the U.S. has the potential to double the number of tracked space objects in that same timeframe.3 This has the potential to cause episodes of Kessler syndrome – where cascading damage produced by collisions increases debris by orders of magnitude.4  This excess debris could also be used as cover by an adversary for a hostile act, thereby making attribution difficult.

There are efforts, such as University of Texas-Austin’s tool ASTRIAGraph, to mitigate this problem through crowdsourcing the location of orbital objects. A key benefit of these tools is their ability to analyze all sources of information simultaneously so as to get the maximum mutual information on desired space domain awareness criteria and enable going from data to discovery.5   One added benefit is that the system layers the analysis of other organizations and governments to reveal gaps, inconsistencies, and data overlaps. This information is of vital importance to avoid collisions, to determine what is debris and what is active, and to properly plan flight paths. For the military, a collision with a mission-critical asset could disable warfighter capabilities, cause unintentional escalation, or result in loss of life.

As astronauts return to Earth via the Orion spacecraft, autonomous caretaking systems will maintain Gateway. / Source: NASA

Autonomy will be critical for future space activities because physical human presence in space will be limited. Autonomous robots with human-like mechanical skills performing maintenance and hardware survivability tasks will be vital. For example, NASA’s Gateway program relies upon fully autonomous systems to function as it’s devoid of humans for 11 months out of the year.

An autonomous caretaking capability will facilitate spacecraft maintenance when Gateway is unmanned / Source: NASA; Dr. Julia Badger

Fixing mechanical and hardware problems on the space station requires a dexterous robot on board that takes direction from a self-diagnosing program, thus creating a self-healing system of systems.6 The military can leverage this technology already developed for austere environments to perform tasks requiring fine motor skills in environments that are inhospitable or too dangerous for human life. Similar dual-use autonomous capabilities employed by our near-peer competitors could also serve as a threat capability against U.S. space assets.  As the military continues to expand its mission sets in space, and its assets become more complex systems of systems, it will increasingly rely on autonomous or semi-autonomous robots for maintenance, debris collection, and defense.

The Space Domain is vital to Land Domain operations.  Our adversaries are well aware of this dependence and intend to disrupt and degrade these capabilities.  NASA is at the forefront of long range operations with robotic systems responsible for self-healing, collection of information, and communications.  What lessons are being learned and applied by the Army from NASA’s experience with autonomous operations in Space?

If you enjoyed this post, please also see:

The entire Mad Scientist Disruption and the Operational Environment Conference Final Report, dated 25 July 2019.

– Dr. Moriba K. Jah and Dr. Diane Howard‘s presentation from the aforementioned conference on Space Traffic Management and Situational Awareness

Dr. Julia Badger‘s presentation from the same conference on Robotics in Space.

– Dr. Jah‘s Modern War Institute podcast on What Does the Future Hold for the US Military in Space? hosted by our colleagues at Modern War Institute.

The following Mad Scientist Laboratory blog posts on space:

1 Houck, Caroline, “The Army’s Space Force Has Doubled in Six Years, and Demand Is Still Going Up,” DefenseOne, 23 Aug. 2017. https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2017/08/armys-space-force-has-doubled-six-years-and-demand-still-going/140467/

2 Jah, Moriba, Mad Scientist Conference: Disruption and the Future Operational Environment, University of Texas at Austin, 25 April 2019.

3 Seemangal, Robin, “Watch SpaceX Launch the First of its Global Internet Satellites,” Wired, 18 Feb. 2018. https://www.wired.com/story/watch-spacex-launch-the-first-of-its-global-internet-satellites/

4 “Micrometeoriods and Orbital Debris (MMOD),” NASA, 14 June 2016. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/wstf/site_tour/remote_hypervelocity_test_laboratory/micrometeoroid_and_orbital_debris.html

5 https://sites.utexas.edu/moriba/astriagraph/

6 Badger, Julia, Mad Scientist Conference: Disruption and the Future Operational Environment, University of Texas at Austin, 25 April 2019.

136. Future Threats: Climate Change and Islamic Terror

[Editor’s Note:  Mad Scientist Laboratory welcomes back returning guest blogger Mr. Matthew Ader, whose cautionary post warns of the potential convergence of Islamic terrorism and climate change activism, possibly resonating with western populations that have not been (to date) predisposed to listening to their messaging. (Note:  Some of the embedded links in this post are best accessed using non-DoD networks.)]

Source:  NASA

Climate change is increasingly being viewed not only as an ecological or economic concern, but as a direct security threat. It both endangers vital coastal infrastructure through sea level rise and multiplies existing issues of food insecurity and migration. However, in these analyses, one issue in particular is missed – the likely emergence of transnational terrorist networks which fuse climate grievance with Islamic terrorism.

Earth Liberation Front (ELF) logo / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ecologically inspired terrorism is, of course, hardly a new concept. There are tens of ecoterrorist organisations, and some have gained substantial notoriety. The model example of this is the Earth Liberation Front, which was highly active in the early 2000s. However, because they tend to operate in developed nations, these groups generally lack the safe areas and large, disenfranchised recruiting bases which empower terrorists elsewhere.

Ecoterrorism, however, is not limited to the developed world – for example, two years ago, an ecoterrorist group detonated a makeshift bomb in Brazil. As the impact of climate change grows ever more severe in the developing world, it is probable that there will be more direct climate-change inspired terrorism. This is especially likely given that the populations of developing nations are increasingly connected to the international information infrastructure – allowing more widespread comprehension of climate change as a global phenomenon with roots in western nations.

Map of the Earth with a six-meter sea level rise represented in red / Source:  NASA

These threats pose a new dimension to the terrorist threat. But what is more worrying is the potential for the infection of ecoterrorist groups by radical Islamic terrorist organisations.

Islam contains a strong thread of environmental stewardship. This is not a call for violence in protection of the Earth, but it has already been exploited by radical groups – for example, Al Shabaab banning plastic bags or the Taliban’s endorsement of afforestation. This gives the groups legitimacy in their area of operations. As climate change worsens and grievance intensifies, it is highly likely that this vein of stewardship of the Earth will strengthen in Islamic terrorist propaganda – both as a way of reinforcing legitimacy and to gain recruits or support.

If radical Islamic terrorists can harness climate change grievance, then the threat they offer against western interests increases substantially. This is for three key reasons:

Image from Islamic State propaganda video / Source:  Wikipedia

Firstly, Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or Daesh tend to have relatively developed infrastructure for propaganda and training. While U.S.-led counterterror operations have proven effective in reducing the threat they pose, the carnage in the Bataclan, Manchester Arena, and Nice – to name but a few incidents – clearly indicate that Islamic terrorists can still mount both expeditionary and homegrown terrorist attacks.

Improvised Explosive Device (IED) / Source:  IDF – Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, Islamic terrorist groups have subject matter expertise regarding explosives and strong links with IED supplier networks. The aforementioned Brazilian ecoterrorist group failed to inflict casualties with their crude bomb. If equipped with military-grade high explosive, of the type used by more ‘professional’ terrorist organisations, then the attack could have been much more devastating.


Thirdly, the audience for radical, violent Islamic teaching is very small, and much of it is in the Middle East. The audience for climate grievance is far larger – 70% of Americans aged 18-34 worry a great deal or a fair amount about climate change – and global. This is obviously not to suggest that all climate change activists or people concerned about it are putative terrorists.

People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington DC / Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, if even 1 in a 1000 of that American number were willing to take more robust action – such as giving support to terrorists, or even carrying out attacks themselves – it would comprise a support base of approximately 47,200 people. That presents a significant threat, only made worse by the ‘moral fairness’ of climate terrorism – attacking the U.S. for vague oppression of Muslims plays differently in media and politics than attacking the U.S. because of its very real role as one of the world’s largest polluters.

This is of course a brief overview. However, the possibility of a hybridisation of climate change grievance and radical Islamic terrorism is too dangerous to ignore. More research is required, and urgently, to ascertain the extent of the risk and find ways to mitigate it. The world community was practically blindsided by the emergence of Al Qaeda. It would be unacceptably irresponsible to let such a failure happen again.

If you enjoyed this post, please also:

Read Mr. Ader‘s previously published blog posts:

War Laid Bare

Decision in the 21st Century

– See Dr. Gary Ackerman‘s presentation and slide deck on “Non-State actors and their uses of emerging technologies” from the Mad Scientist Robotics, Artificial Intelligence & Autonomy Conference, facilitated at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), on 7-8 March 2017.

– Review the following additional blog posts:

Trouble in Paradise: The Technological Upheaval of Modern Political and Economic Systems, by Ms. Marie Murphy, and

Emergent Threat Posed by Super-Empowered Individuals.

Crank up Neil Young‘s Mother Earth!

Mr. Matthew Ader is a first-year undergraduate taking War Studies at King’s College London.

Disclaimer: Mr. Ader is not affiliated with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Government. This piece is meant to be thought-provoking and does not reflect the current position of the U.S. Army.

115. War Laid Bare

[Editor’s Note:  Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) describes how the U.S. Army, as part of the joint force, can counter and defeat a near-peer adversary capable of contesting the U.S. in all domains, in both competition and armed conflict.  MDO provides commanders numerous options for executing simultaneous and sequential operations using surprise and the rapid and continuous integration of capabilities across all domains to present multiple dilemmas to an adversary in order to gain physical and psychological advantages and influence and control over the operational environment.

Today’s guest blog post by Mr. Matthew Ader, however, addresses the advent of inexpensive CubeSats, capable of providing global surveillance at a fraction of the cost of legacy spy satellites, and how they could usher in the end of covert movement for combat units and their associated logistical support, and with that the demise of strategic and operational deception and surprise.]

One of the key factors of war since time immemorial has been uncertainty. The dispositions of the enemy, the strength of their industry, the will of their people – all have been guessed at, but rarely known for certain. Thanks to a pair of companies in California, that is about to change. Deception is dying.

Planet Labs operates a constellation of around 180 CubeSats – shoebox sized satellites in low earth orbit. Each day, they photograph the entirety of the globe, sending 6 terabytes of data to Earth for use. That capacity alone is valuable, but the sheer volume of data makes it impossible to analyze quickly.

For a human.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) image analysis is not so limited. This has been recognized and operationalized by Orbital Insight, a company specializing in AI image analysis. Partnering with Planet Labs, Orbital Insight delivers unique intelligence – for example, counting cars in parking lots to determine market movements. If they can count cars, they can certainly count tanks.

And, unlike conventional satellites, CubeSat imagery is cheap. It costs about US$100,000 to put one into orbit. The cost of a Planet Labs satellite is not easily available, but a similar sized CubeSat costs an estimated US$30,000. A 180-satellite constellation would therefore cost US$24.3 million, around a third of the price of a single F-35. If more timely imagery is required, buying more satellites is not an obstacle. It’s harder to find solid numbers for AI, but Project Maven, DoD’s flagship image analysis research program, was budgeted at $93 million a year.

Therefore, it’s not implausible that given some years for technology to mature and a few billion dollars investment1, any national military will have the capability to persistently surveil the entire Earth. A combination of camouflage and low-resolution satellite cameras will probably preserve tactical deception. But strategic and operational deception, the covert movement of battalions and carrier strike groups, will be impossible. That is a revolution in military affairs.

In particular, logistics will become very difficult. The depots and truck convoys required to sustain a modern army will be easily visible. Long range, uninterceptable hypersonic weapons can then strike these targets with impunity. Even absent high-tech hypersonics, conventional missiles and rocket artillery can still have a serious impact. The result is that deploying and sustaining any sizeable force against an enemy with a large CubeSat constellation will be very difficult.

In trying to predict the future of war, it is easy to fall prey to LTG H.R.  McMaster’s ‘vampire fallacy’ of thinking new technology will deliver bloodless, decisive victory. Certainly, there are a range of factors which could mitigate the incredible intelligence advantages of CubeSat constellations. These could range from better cyberwarfare to degrade enemy intelligence sharing, to more effective missile defense, to directly attacking the CubeSats themselves.

These mitigating factors do not occur in the wild. It will take years of hard work to develop and deploy them. The U.S. military, in partnership with its allies, must take the lead on developing its own CubeSat constellations and countermeasures. Because if they don’t, someone else will – and the results for U.S. power could be potentially catastrophic.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please also see our related discussions regarding Concealment in the Fundamental Questions Affecting Army Modernization post and Finders vs Hiders in our Timeless Competitions post…

… and our Star Wars 2050 post by Ms. Marie Murphy.

Mr. Matthew Ader is a first-year undergraduate reading War Studies at King’s College London.

1 Accounting for ground receiving stations, CubeSat replacements, additional staff and other associated costs.