North Korean missile-rattling went on a brief hiatus this month as Pyongyang conducted a charm offensive at the Winter Olympics. Politburo member and Supreme Leader's sister Kim Yo-jong wowed a number of news outlets who should have known better before returning to her customary repressive duties north of the 38th parallel. This is likely to be a temporary lull, as mutual recriminations between the DPRK and most of the rest of the world continued at a somewhat lower volume even during the Games.
North Korean activity in cyberspace continues to concentrate on state-run criminal enterprises: Pyongyang seeks to redress sanctions' financial bite through direct theft. There are also signs that the country is stepping up its espionage with more capable approaches to an expanded target list. Western defense and aerospace firms are now being prospected by Reaper, a relatively young threat group that's emerged from the long shadow of North Korea's premier hacking unit, the Lazarus Group.
The Olympic Games themselves did experience cyber attacks that manifested themselves as website disruptions during the opening ceremonies. There were clues in the hacks (Korean language traces, some reuse of known North Korean code, and DPRK IP addresses) that pointed to Pyongyang. But even at the time suspicion fell on Russia, which had a number of doping and disqualification bones to pick with the International Olympic Committee. That suspicion seems to have been largely confirmed: officials in the US Intelligence Community have said, anonymously but for attribution, that Russia's GRU military intelligence service (better known in cyberspace as Fancy Bear) was behind the hacks. It appears to have been a false-flag operation.
Concerns about missile and nuclear weapon proliferation have driven defensive preparations in countries affected by the two states of greatest concern: North Korea and Iran. North Korea, a declared nuclear weapons state with a demonstrated long-range missile capability, is of concern in East Asia and the North America. Iran, not yet a declared nuclear weapons state, but one in possession of short- and intermediate-range missiles, has supplied such weapons to insurgents in Yemen who have used them against Saudi targets. Iran is also regarded as a drone and cruise missile proliferation threat.
Despite some recent failures of missile defense system tests, observers are generally of the belief that such systems have value, have "no choice but to succeed," as some put it. US NORTHCOM says it's confident it can stop a North Korean missile attack.
Space war in "a matter of years?"
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued its annual Worldwide Threat Report on February 8th. The ODNI's assessment is that principal US competitors, that is, Russia and China, have developed not just the doctrine and organizations necessary to wage war in space, and against essential US and allied space platforms, but that they're developing the technical capability to do so as well. A particularly interesting passage in the report says, "We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against US and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems. Military reforms in both countries in the past few years indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains."
Russian sources boasted that the country had developed the ability to use lasers as anti-satellite weapons. This appears to be a developmental rather than an operational capability (if indeed it's real and not disinformation) but it offers a troubling kind of corroboration of the ODNI's threat assessment.
US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein told participants in February's Air Force Association meetings that he saw space war as essentially inevitable, and that the US Air Force expected to fight in space "within a matter of years," presumably sooner than a matter of decades.
Some obvious targets in a space war would be C4ISR systems, including communications, blue force tracking, and GPS. These are therefore the subject not only of US Defense research projects (the US Army being particularly interested in blue force tracking) but also the subject of exercises in which operators develop their ability to operate without the capabilities they've grown accustomed to relying on.
The National Space Defense Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado is now fully operational.
Falcon Heavy delivers.
SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy, largest and most powerful launch vehicle to emerge from the commercial space industry, on February 6th. Its payload was a Tesla roadster, product of one of Elon Musk's other companies. A mannequin in the driver's seat is wearing one of SpaceX's flight suits: the company hopes to fly a crewed mission later this year. For the moment the Tesla is headed for parking in an elliptical solar orbit that will take it beyond the orbit of Mars, but not as far as the Asteroid Belt (contrary to a pardonably enthusiastic tweet by Mr. Musk, who before the launch said he gave the mission only a "50-50" chance of success).
The Falcon Heavy has been under development since at least 2011, with conceptual studies going back to 2004. SpaceX had originally hoped for first flight in 2013, but development proved more challenging than had been anticipated. The launch vehicle's competition would be, roughly, United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy, but the Falcon Heavy can lift a much larger payload--more than 140,000 pounds to low-earth orbit compared to the Delta IV's 63,700. SpaceX successfully recovered two of the system's three boosters, and expects to do better in the future.
Observers regard the Falcon Heavy as a very affordable launch vehicle. A flight in recoverable mode costs $90 million. A fully expendable version of the Falcon Heavy will fly for $150 million. By way of comparison, a Delta IV Heavy flight costs $350 million, and that's a low estimate. Depending on configuration, a Delta IV Heavy launch is estimated at between $400 million and $600 million.
As did Falcon Heavy's smaller, older sister, Falcon 9.
At the end of January a Falcon 9 put a Luxembourg-developed and flagged NATO C4ISR satellite into orbit.
At the beginning of March a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 will fly a new NOAA weather satellite, GOES-S. Later that same day, if plans hold, a SpaceX Falcon 9 will launch a Spanish communications satellite, Hispasat 30W-6. Both flights will be made from Cape Canaveral.
Space broadband, space clouds.
IBM and Spacebelt have agreed to work together on space-based cloud services. The Internet may also be made accessible from orbital platforms: a Falcon 9 carried two SpaceX Starlink low-latency broadband satellites into orbit on February 17th.
Other commercial space ventures.
Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, continues to make progress on its plans for a commercial space station. He's announced the formation of a new company, Bigelow Space Operations, described as "the public-facing partner of Bigelow Aerospace." He sees its competition as coming from NASA and China, and discusses its orbital hotel even as rumors circulate in Washington of some form of "privatization" for the International Space Station.
And more launch systems are under development.
Japan successfully put a satellite into orbit aboard the smallest rocket ever used for such a purpose. The Number 5 vehicle of the SS-520 series launched a three-kilogram earth-observing microsatellite on February 3rd.
US university students are working on various small launch vehicles as engineering projects in a race to an altitude of 100 kilometers. They may not reach orbit soon, but they do plan to cross the Kármán line into space by the end of July 2019.
On the other end of the rocket scale is another SpaceX project, the "BFR," which in bowdlerized form stands for "Big Falcon Rocket." It would eclipse the Falcon Heavy once development is complete.
Stratolaunch Systems Corp. has been taxi-testing its Stratolaunch aircraft at the Mojave Spaceport this month, and a first flight appears to be approaching. The very large aircraft (wingspan 117 meters, maximum takeoff weight 590 metric tons) would serve in effect as a reusable first stage, carrying a smaller rocket to high altitudes where it would be released for its own motor to carry it into orbit. The Stratolaunch aircraft would carry Orbital ATK's Pegasus vehicles, at least in its earlier flights.
Another startup, SpinLaunch, founded in 2014, is working on a different first-stage alternative. The company (currently seeking $30 million is Series A funding) intends to use a powerful centrifuge to loft a smaller rocket high enough for its own motor to finish the trip to low-earth orbit. This idea has been under consideration for some time (informally called, a few years ago, a "slingotron") but it will have some challenges to overcome before if can be made successful. Engineering the payload to withstand the very great acceleration in the atmosphere the centrifuge would achieve is seen by observers as the principal problem in need of solution.
Today's edition of the CyberWire reports events affecting Australia, Canada, China, Finland, France, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, NATO/OTAN, New Zealand, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Yemen.
Iranian Cruise Missiles also a Proliferation Threat(Foundation for Defense of Democracies) In its new Worldwide Threat Assessment for 2018, the U.S. intelligence community warns that Iran continues to “enable” attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels against America’s Persian Gulf partners.
All Eyes on North Korea(Foreign Policy) Intelligence agencies are surging resources to focus on the Korean Peninsula.
'Fancy Bear' hackers took aim at US defense contractors(Fifth Domain) The hackers known as Fancy Bear, who also intruded in the U.S. election, went after at least 87 people working on militarized drones, missiles, rockets, stealth fighter jets, cloud-computing platforms or other sensitive activities.
The Long Shadow of A.Q. Khan(Foreign Affairs) The Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan illegally proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea over the course of decades. What lessons does his story hold today?
Raytheon Profits from PATRIOT-ism(Madison.com) Ever since Hawaii's false alarm about a non-existent North Korean nuclear missile attack last month, missile defense has been at the top of defense investors' minds. Turns out it's on
Seoul to order new PAC-3 interceptors to counter North Korea(Defense News) The deployment of PAC-3 MSE is expected to help enhance the South Korean military’s multi-layered shield of PAC-3 interceptors, along with the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system deployed in the southern region of South Korea last year.
Atlas 5 launch on track for Thursday, SpaceX mission expected to slip(SpaceFlightNow) A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is set to roll to its launch pad Wednesday at Cape Canaveral, a day before liftoff with a new-generation NOAA weather satellite. The launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Spanish communications satellite is expected to be shuffled after the Atlas 5 flight in a rapid-fire launch sequence at the Florida spaceport this week.
The Falcon Heavy backlash and the public trust(TechCrunch) I watched the Falcon Heavy launch this week. Not as an accredited journalist, from an observation tower, but as one of the masses on Alan Shepard Beach twelve miles south.
Raytheon Ground System for Satellites Skewered by Research Firm(Bloomberg.com) The Pentagon and Congress can have little confidence in any estimate Raytheon Co. or the Air Force may offer on the cost and timeline for a troubled ground control system to operate new Global Positioning System satellites, according to a report from a nonprofit research firm.
As Predator drones retire, the Reapers’ mission grows(Air Force Times) With the retirement of MQ-1 Predators this month, MQ-9 Reapers are executing deliberate strikes, providing armed overwatch or close-air support, and flexing to ISR taskings — all in a single mission.
NORTHCOM Has '100 Percent Confidence' U.S. Can Repel a North Korean Missile Attack(USNI News) The top military officer charged with defending the American homeland said she had “100 percent confidence” that Northern Command could defeat a ballistic missile attack from North Korea. Air Force Gen. Lori Robison, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, said in her opening statement, “We continue to watch their developments [in ballistic …
Building the Future of Space Exploration(Northrop Grumman Newsroom) Since the beginning of the U.S. space program in 1958, every space system developed by this country has been manufactured, integrated and tested on Earth, then launched into space aboard a rocket. This approach has been both expensive and logistically...
Why China Won’t Rescue North Korea(Foreign Affairs) American assumptions about China’s interests on the Korean Peninsula are dangerously outdated. Despite conventional wisdom, China is no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival.
DOD's nuclear posture review includes tougher cyber defenses(InsideDefense.com) The Pentagon's updated Nuclear Posture Review includes steps for strengthening the military's cyber defenses, as President Trump is calling for an increase in spending to modernize the nation's nuclear arsenal, Inside Cybersecurity reports.