Satellites and Cyberwar

By Dan Gettinger

A report released earlier this week by the U.S. Department of Defense highlighted a growing tension between the United States and China: cyber intrusions. For the first time, the military accused China of investing in and employing offensive cyber weapons aimed at revealing American policy intentions and military capacities.

According to the New York Times, “China is investing in electronic warfare capabilities in an effort to blind American satellites and other space assets, and hopes to use electronic and traditional weapons systems to gradually push the United States military presence into the mid-Pacific nearly 2,000 miles from China’s coast.”

Over the past few months, cyber warfare has increasingly taken center stage in relations between the two countries. A Times article from February of this year revealed a super-secret Chinese military cyber unit based in Shanghai where attacks on American business were said to have originated. The article, by David E. Sanger, called the cyber tensions a “worsening Cold War” between the two largest economies that is “in some ways less dangerous, in others more complex and pernicious.” The early years of the Cold War do offer some lessons for understanding the rising tensions with China.

The building in Shanghai from which Chinese cyber attacks on the United States are said to originate.

The building in Shanghai from which Chinese cyber attacks on the United States are said to originate. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The cascade of recent cyber incidents reflects the centrality of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to foreign relations in the information age. They also illustrate the unsettling effect that the proliferation of these intelligence collection platforms have on policy makers. Cyber intrusions for the purposes of gaining a sense of American military plans and capabilities are increasingly viewed as offensive actions. In early March, Tom Donilon, the White House national security advisor, said of Chinese cyber intrusions, “The international community cannot tolerate such activity from any country.”

We are today in a moment when the technology of intelligence collection is rapidly shifting. A similar change took place in the early years of the Cold War. In the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, when the United States was grasping for information on Soviet intentions and capabilities, the age of satellite and long distance aerial photography was born. In Deep Black: The Startling Truth Behind America’s Top Secret Spy Satellites, William Burrows describes how human intelligence, such as spies and defectors, was insufficient, leading to a massive investment in aerial ISR. “Accordingly, machines were used to bear the brunt of the espionage effort; in effect they were pressed into service to spy on other machines.” (Burrows, 54)

In Donilon’s statement, and in the reactions to the recent revelation that China is heavily invested in cyber war, there are undertones that resemble the anxious rhetoric of the early Cold War. When the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik, George E. Reedy Jr., an aide to President Johnson, summed up the national sentiment of the time: “’The simple fact is that we can no longer consider the Russians to be behind us in technology.’” (Burrows, 89) Similar to the expansion of ISR into space, the large-scale investment into cyber weapons is a relatively untrodden domain of international espionage. This untamed sphere of opportunity instills a degree of anxiety among the policy makers responsible for our national security.

The American Strategic Air Command reviewing satellite imagery during the Cuban missile crisis. Photo credit:

The American Strategic Air Command reviewing satellite imagery during the Cuban missile crisis. Photo credit:

With the introduction of new technology on a large scale, the stakes for surveillance are high. However, as the Cold War progressed, opposing satellites, once considered intrusive and upsetting, became increasingly relied upon for mutual security. As Burrows writes:

“Politically, the Cuban missile crisis had demonstrated that overhead reconnaissance, and satellite reconnaissance in particular was a stabilizing factor because it greatly reduced the element of surprise and in the process lessened the chance of a dangerous, all-out, preemptive attack for fear that the enemy was getting ready to do the same thing.” (Burrows, 144)

While, at first, the U.S.S.R. and the United States were eager to confront and remove opposing satellites and other reconnaissance platforms, by 1963 Soviet denunciations of intelligence incursions “was replaced by a tacit acceptance of the increasingly pervasive space sentinels.” (Burrows, 146) Particularly in the case of the Cuban missile crisis, where so much was at stake, ISR was critical to avoiding a catastrophe.

The New York Times may have been hasty to call these cyber tensions a ‘cold war.’ And yet, as with the development and introduction of new technologies in the 1950’s, there are similarities besides the increased tension between China and the United States. At this point, it is clear that these new intelligence platforms are considered to be anything but stabilizing. Whereas, as the Cold War progressed, the USSR and the United States became increasingly comfortable with the presence of satellite surveillance, it took time and several close calls to demonstrate the benefits of mutual observation.

A Chinese satellite launch. Photo credit: AP

A Chinese satellite launch. Photo credit: AP

The affordability of cyber and aerial surveillance drones means that nations may take greater liberties and risks with the technology in order to test the boundaries of permissible surveillance. By investing in cyber weapons to ‘blind’ American satellites, it would appear that China views space-based eyes as threats and that American policy makers feel similarly about Chinese cyber capabilities. While it is unclear what responses the United States are planning, we hope that a crisis like that of Cuba won’t be necessary to illustrate the boundary of accepted surveillance practices.