Adapting to an Omniscient World

The oldest recorded talking weapon is Sharur, “smasher of thousands,” a Sumerian mace that could fly, relate intelligence remotely and direct fire down from the sky. Some of you may have already drawn the parallels with satellites, except those require organizations and technical expertise to be able to talk to the rest of the military. And satellites, as we say, are not weapons.

Defense spending does not always come from the defense budget. France announced in September new commercial investments in space satellites and services, just a few months after President Francois Hollande revealed the first increase to French defense spending in a quarter-century. Most reporting explains the French investment in commercial space as market driven, to stay competitive and prevent American companies from cornering the market. But keep in mind what kinds of satellites are being targeted: high-resolution optical and high-throughput broadband.

France has found its tactical interests shifting in line with its military. France’s heavy investment in launch is a product of a larger geopolitical strategy. Similarly, the recent shift toward satellites, and what kinds of satellites in particular, is informed by adapting military concerns.

From the Charles de Gaulle years to now, the primary concern for French forces is strategic independence. During the Cold War, that meant access to a nuclear deterrent and the industrial base necessary to use it: e.g., launch. Today, it is the infrastructure needed to carry out global counter terrorism operations. That means being able to transmit the data needed to acquire targets and direct strikes in and out of war zones, and thus requires space-based Earth observation and telecommunication.

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The Sumerian god Ninurta wielded an enchanted talking mace called Sharur whose reconnaissance and offensive capabilities invite parallels to modern military satellites. Credit: SapceNews graphic/Wikimedia/Ben Berger-Relave

However, as private-sector investment in commercial hardware and operations in space continues to grow, the amount of control any government has on potential defense applications dwindles.

The United States gets to be the first country to see this in action. As major multinational corporations, which have a mixed relationship with the federal government, acquire and invest in companies that would otherwise require government resources, the strength of the government stakeholder goes down.

Take remote sensing: Whereas veteran DigitalGlobe and the government have made sizable investments in security infrastructure for handling classified and unclassified information for the U.S. defense and intelligence community, up-and-coming satellite imaging companies have not yet announced any intention to do so. Nor should we expect them to without the same incentives. The slow “divorce” of commercial and defense space is necessary for true market integration; it moves us away from the government monopsony that defines our sector. It is a good thing.

But — and there is always a but — how does the United States continue its policy on shutter control? That policy dictates that the United States must be able to halt satellite imaging in case of dire national security or foreign policy concerns. More practically, and more importantly, how does the United States ensure that such useful technology on the open market is not used against it? For now, the only answer is that it doesn’t.

There is simply no way to prevent the use of these publicly available services by potential enemy combatants. Want to block requests from a particular location? Children can run proxies easily enough to bypass that. Want to force companies to not sell images of certain areas or during certain time windows? Sure, if exclusively American satellites are overhead, which is less likely every year. Want to just block buy everything, like we did in Afghanistan? Good luck getting the money when there are several completely commercial companies in competition around the world, and not alerting anyone to that activity during clandestine operations. Want to build dedicated satellites for military use? OK, but try to justify that funding when the commercial satellites are still going to be open to every Jack and Jill anyway. If we drive the competition away from our shores, we lose the money, the expertise and the security.

That does not mean we do nothing. Tactical and operational changes can mitigate some of the advantages of satellites’ capabilities. We’ve observed our geopolitical competition doing it for decades. Stealth, mobility, misdirection and (where applicable) shortening the time between planning and execution will be more and more useful. In essence, many of the strategies we’ve been fighting against are the ones we need to adopt. The rest of the world, like France, will continue to have direct control over their dual-use satellites, but the United States will need to pioneer the changes to NATO-sphere military operations that an omniscient world demands.

Sharur was a sentient weapon that would only serve its master. Satellites and the resources they use are only marginally less sentient than the organizations needed to run them. Commercial and even government data transmission networks can be tricked to serve any masters, whoever thinks they’re in control. Instead of looking for ways to preserve today’s dwindling advantages, we need to be the fittest: the force most adaptable to change. We have time to prepare, but the days of perfect commercial and defense synergy in space are numbered.

Jordan Sotudeh is a recent master’s graduate from the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University