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The China/Russia Space Threat: Is Star Wars Far Away or On the Horizon?

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In world politics, using force, blatantly offensive force in particular, rarely comes without costs.–Gil Merom

Space – The Final Frontier?

The space race from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States eventually ended in a tie.  Maybe not totally a tie, but the advent of the International Space Station (ISS) and the amount of training performed at Star City just outside of Moscow by both Russians and Americans in preparation for their missions give the appearance that the former rivalry is now a cooperative event.  Over the last few years, space is becoming the focus of many nations from a security perspective.  Merom’s succinct summation of the cost of using offensive force is a driving reason for the new focus on space either from the standpoint of dominance or of countering other nations’ use of it.This time, instead of claiming dominance by planting a flag on the moon, the idea of controlling a domain that is still not truly understood provides a level of security impacting many areas, like the Global Positioning System (GPS), Positioning, Navigating, and Timing (PNT), and Satellite Communication (SATCOM) (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018).  And it is China and Russia that are currently leading the charge of attempting to operationalize and weaponize space to project power.

Power Projection

Countering the threat of the United States is a purpose both China and Russia cite as a reason to develop space and counterspace capabilities, but that is almost the default/de facto motive for any action they take.  Achieving space superiority is not on par with becoming a nuclear power in terms of international recognition, but China and Russia both see gaining the upper hand in space as a way to set their nations apart from the rest of the international community.  China recently declared space as a military domain. That allows China to expand its military doctrine “that the goal of space warfare and operations is to achieve space superiority using offensive and defensive means in connection with their broader strategic focus on asymmetric cost imposition, access denial, and information dominance.”( Weeden and Sampson 2018, xi). Based off of this statement, the Chinese view space as another avenue to project military power. And space, like cyberspace, is much harder to counter due to the difficulty in attribution.

Russia’s efforts to regain counterspace capability also provides a method for projecting power and is another area to show that they are back as players on the world stage.  President Putin laid out four ideas for a 21st century Russia, “(1) the strong, functioning state; (2) the state-guided market economy; (3) the welfare state with attendant safety net; and (4) the state-safeguarded foreign and security policy position that provides Russia a Eurasian – and even global – leadership position.” (Willerton 2017, 211) Pursuing a program of space and counterspace options ties directly into the first and fourth idea presented by the President and could tie into the second and third if Russia is able to export technology or intellectual capital to assist other nations.  The Russian perspective sees “modern warfare as a struggle over information dominance and net centric operations that can often take place in domains without clear boundaries and contiguous operating areas.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, xii) Space falls within this definition so, if by leveraging space to conduct cyberspace or space-enabled information operations, then that provides an even larger platform that Russian targets must defend. After all, Russia has “extensive operational experience from decades of spaces operations.” (Harrison et al. 2018, 13) Although some areas of the Russian space program have atrophied since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. have maintained a partnership with civil space missions to the ISS. (Harrison et al. 2018, 13)

GPS, PNT, and SATCOM

Most nations widely use GPS and PNT for navigation and the geo-tagging of locations for official and unofficial uses.  For China, GPS is how Japan maintains situational awareness in the East China Sea. (Horowitz et al. 2016, 30) If China were able to achieve control over GPS satellites, the advantage it would have over other nations would be hard to quantify.  Aside from blinding or manipulating what the Japanese see in the East China Sea, commercial and military pilots rely on GPS, as do many other peoples for navigation via ships, cars or phones.  Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones, are also dependent on GPS, and many military operations use drones for communication relays.  If China or Russia manipulated or jammed the link between a ground control station and the drone, then the drone could pose a threat to any airplanes or helicopters in the area. If a weaponized drone, then that capability could be used against unauthorized targets (a rogue drone) or cause chaos due to the lack of communications.

A vast majority of communications today are done by SATCOM.  To control or have the ability to deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, or manipulate any combination of GPS, PNT, and SATCOM gives a nation a huge benefit and should be cause for concern by all.  Most systems were built and launched into orbit before cybersecurity became an issue.  The distance from Earth to the satellites’ respective orbits provided an inherent level of assumed security, so many measures that are standard on systems today are not on satellites currently in use.  Knowing the exact amount of cyber-attacks on satellites or their ground stations is unlikely as the number is either classified or nations and companies are unwilling to admit they were victims publicly.  What is known is that both China and Russia are capable, competent cyber and signals intelligence(SIGINT) actors and attacks of this nature are not beyond their abilities.

A 2014 Crowd strike report linked the “People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department Third Department 12th Bureau Unit 61486 – that subset of what is ‘generally acknowledged to be China’s premiere SIGINT collection and analysis agency’ dedicated specifically to ‘supporting China’s space surveillance network.’” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) That level of attribution is impressive in such a nebulous environment.  Although not an official attribution by the United States Government, Crowd strike and other commercial threat intelligence providers’ identification and designation of threat actors are generally universally accepted as accurate.

A Russian Criminal syndicate, known as Turla, exploited satellite links to hack other targets according to Kaspersky Labs. (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-7) The Russian Government can claim Turla was a criminal act and not supported by Russia, but in 1998 Russian hijackers gained “control of a U.S. – German ROSAT deep-space monitoring satellite, then issued commands for it to rotate toward the sun, frying its optics and rendering it useless.”(Weeden and Sampson 2018, 7-8) These few examples demonstrate China and Russia maintain both the intent and capability to conduct operations in space.

Weaponization

Both China and Russia are “developing the ability to interdict satellites both from the ground standpoint and from the space standpoint” according to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Tucker 2018) The idea of weaponizing space is enticing and terrorizing.  For those nations that are able to develop and deploy technology to disrupt other satellites, a huge advantage exists. Iran, India, and Israel are among other nations seeking to develop a space or counterspace program.  (Harrison et al. 2018; Weeden and Sampson 2018) None of these nations, however, is at the level of the space/counterspace programs of China, Russia, or the United States. Nor are they likely to refocus the bulk of their economies and militaries to concentrate solely on space. Much like the alliances developed as nuclear powers emerged, nations that desire space superiority or, simply wishing that the United States not be the dominant space power, may put their efforts toward aligning with a power they feel they can benefit from, even if other strategic objectives do not necessarily align.  The threat presented by space does not produce the mass panic that nuclear war does, but when considering that space is the domain where missiles and communications could be jammed or re-directed resulting in an inadvertent nuclear crisis, the legitimacy and severity of threats from space become apparent.

China and Russia launched a 200 million dollar venture in 2015 whose purpose was to innovate technologies. (Harrison et al. 2018, 6) In July 2018, China sent a delegation to Russia to explore potentially building a jointly-run station based on Russian knowledge in an area China is deficient. (Russia, China 2018) Interestingly, in 2013, the European Space Agency considered making China its primary space partner, instead of the United States, “as China’s global ‘rising power’ status now extends to space.” (Johnson-Freese 2015, 91)

China’s messaging that it is serious about becoming a space power resonates with other nations and they appear ready to broker the relationships needed to achieve the goal.  Russia has the technical knowledge and perhaps the upper hand in that it is a key partner on the ISS with several other nations, including the United States.  If Russia and China continue with either joint ventures or Russia supplying China with expertise, it is unknown how the United States will react, since it vehemently opposes China’s inclusion on the ISS. (Johnson-Freese 2015, 95) In February 2018, the United States Director of National Intelligence identified “Russia and China as continuing to launch ‘experimental’ satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities, at least some of which are intended to advance counterspace capabilities …some technologies with peaceful applications—such as satellite inspection, refueling, and repair—can also be used against adversary spacecraft.” (Tucker 2018) The issue is on the United States radar at a high enough level that the threats presented by China and Russia were included in the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community from the Director of National Intelligence. (Coats 2018, 13) To what extent the United States will go to deter either China or Russia in space is still unknown at this time, however.

Space Law

The United Nations maintains an Office for Outer Space Affairs that, among other roles, assists with space law “associated with the rules, principles, and standards of international law appearing in the five international treaties and five sets of principles governing outer space, which have been developed under the auspices of the United Nations.” (United Nations 2018) In addition to the space laws adjudicated by the United Nations, individual states have their own laws regarding the use of space.  China and Russia are among those that develop national space laws.  China’s 2015 National Security Law made China’s defense of interests in space legally binding and a white paper in that same year stated, “threats from such new security domains as outer space and cyberspace will be dealt with to maintain the common security of the world community.” (Weeden and Sampson 2018, 1-20).  Russian National space laws listed on the United Nations website include areas covering space activity, management structure, licensing space operations, Russian Space Agency regulations, and an agreement between the Russian Federation and Cabinet Ministers of Ukraine about technical safeguards on the use of outer space. (United Nations 2018) The bulk of the Russian laws listed were written in the 1990s, with the exception of the Ukrainian agreement which is dated 2009. So, the possibility exists that these laws do not represent what the Russian Federation follows today as a national space law.

One area under that is a potential loophole for any nation is the dual-use nature of most satellites.  Unless a country scrutinizes a satellite before launching it into orbit, determining the use is strictly for a defensive or offensive purpose is difficult to prove.  Again, the tyranny of distance comes into play trying to establish the true nature of space-related activities.  Intelligence collection methods possibly can gather the required information to identify a weapons system or counter-weapons system on a satellite schematic, but for a communications, GPS, or PNT satellite, proving its ultimate use for something more than just supporting commercial or regular military communications and navigation services is not so easy.

What’s Next?

International and national laws are in place to ensure the freedom and safety of space for all nations. But those laws only help nations that can afford to operate in space to a certain extent.  As China and Russia expand their independent efforts at becoming dominant nations in space, where Chinese-Russian joint ventures go is worth watching. How far these two nations are willing to collaborate and even become true partners in space will have lasting consequences on how other countries will or can react. The space threat is real even if it is difficult to quantify based on it being mostly an amorphous threat today.  That does not mean nations are not trying to exploit seemingly ambiguous space as a domain for their own national advantages.  Thus, there is no excuse for international organizations like the United Nations to be caught unaware if sometime in the near future a major power shows it has successfully turned space into a domain for waging war or projecting power.

Dana Ogle has over 25 years’ experience as a United States Marine, providing mission integration in ground, air, and cyberspace operations. She is currently a doctoral student in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.

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Cyber-attacks-Frequency a sign of Red Alert for India

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The biggest target is in terms of transportations, nuclear power plants, Power system Operation Corporation Limited, V.O. Chidambaram Port Trust, Telangana State Load Dispatch Centre, logistic industries and research organisations which eventually can lead to destruction of the whole ecosystem. The confidentiality breach in the case of medical data leak as reported by a German cyber security firm –Greenbone Sustainable Resilience wherein Picture Archiving and Communication Servers were linked to public internet without any requisite protection is a point of concern. Then, there are certain individualistic attacks such as hacking email and financial crimes (banking), etc. In the last two years the attacks radar of focus has been defence, government accounts and the vaccine manufacturing companies.

Cyber Security – Individualistic awareness need of the hour

The target of the individual in a peculiar case which led to heinous crimes casted was due to opening of a document which was a bait to install Netwire- a malware. The bait was eventually delivered through a file and what prompted a person to open that link was a Drop box sent to him on his email was actually opening a Pandora Box of malicious command and control server. An emphasis to understand the technicality that Netwire stands for a malware which gives control of the infected system to an attacker. This in turn paves way for data stealing, logging keystrokes and compromise passwords. In the similar vein the Pegasus used the tactic to infiltrate the user’s phones in 2019.

Cyber Security – Attacking Power Distribution Systems

The intrusions by Chinese hacker groups in October, 2020 as brought out by Recorded Future was done through Shadow Pad which opens a secret path from target system to command and control servers. And, the main target is sectors such as transportation, telecommunication and energy .And , there are different tags that are being used by the Chinese Espionage Industry such as APT41, Wicked Spider and Wicked Panda , etc.

The institutions backing legitimisation

The Institutions which are at working under the cyber security surveillance are the National Security Council and National Information Board headed by National Security Adviser helping in framing India’s cyber security policy .Then, in 2014 there is the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre under the National Technical Research Organisation mandating the protection of critical information infrastructure. And, in 2015 the National Cyber Security Coordinator advises the Prime Minister on strategic cyber security issues. In the case of nodal entity , India’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-in) is playing a crucial role under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology(MEITY).But, there is a requirement of clarity in National Cyber Security Policy of 2013 and the needed updates desired in it respectively.

A cohesive approach – Data Protection and Privacy Importance

The Data privacy i.e. the personal data protection bill is an important imperative in which services of private actors can be bridged through a concerned law which is missing link in that sense. The point of Data localisation falls squarely within this dimension of Section 40 and 41 of the draft bill where in the Indian stakeholders have the capacity to build their own data centres .In this contextualisation there also a need to understand certain technicalities involved in terms of edge computing which in a way is enabling the data to be analysed, processed, and transferred at the edge of a network. An elaboration to this is the data is analysed locally, closer to where it is stored, in real-time without delay. The Edge computing distributes processing, storage, and applications across a wide range of devices and data centres which make it difficult for any single disruption to take down the network. Since more data is being processed on local devices rather than transmitting it back to a central data centre, edge computing also reduces the amount of data actually at risk at any one time. Whereas on the other hand, there is insistence on data localisation has paved the way for companies such as Google Pay to adhere to the policy and synchronise their working with the United Payments Interface (UPI).

What do you understand by Data Share?

In the recent case of WhatsApp privacy issue and drawing in parallel other organisation a similar platform such as Facebook and Google shared the data to the third party with a lopsided agreement and with continuance of the data trade business industry. In 1996 the internet was free so was perceived as carte blanche , a safe harbour falling under the Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act in the United States but with the evolution of the circumstances the laws in that specifications are also required to change in that respect. In relations to the Indian law under the Information Technology Act, 2000 under the Section 69 the Indian government has the powers to monitor and decrypt any information that’s store in any computer resource but on certain conditions such as in regards to the sovereignty, defence and security of the country.

Cyber-attacks understanding on the International Forums

In terms of Lieber Code of Conduct of 1863 or be it Hague Convention of 1899 there is a need of updating the definitions and where in the cyber army falling under the categorisation  of civilians , not possessing any of the warfare weapons cause the main weapon that they possess is a malware which is invisible but can have deep repercussions leading to destruction of that particular economy altogether .So, in recent evolving circumstances there is an undue importance to for the target country to respond with equal force and having a right to self-defence in this manner regardless of the attack being from a non-state actor from a third country and masquerading under the civilian garb .Henceforth , there a thorough understanding of the complex environment that one is dealing with , there is undue emphasis to change and respectively update with the current world.

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Incidents of Uranium Theft in India: Depleting Nuclear Safety and International Silence

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Terrorism

In yet another incident of the capture of nuclear-related materials from unauthorized persons in India has made headlines in the Indian media but largely ignored in the international media. On 4th June 2021, as reported in the Indian media, the authorities arrested seven people possessing approximately 6.4 kilograms of Uranium in the Eastern State of Jharkhand. This is the second time in less than a month where Indian authorities have captured such a gang in an attempt to sell uranium illegally. An incident of the same nature was reported just a few days ago in May 2021 where authorities apprehended unauthorized persons, who were trying to sell nearly 7 kilograms of natural uranium on the black market. Notably, Indian authorities themselves believe that these events might be linked to a “national gang involved in illegal uranium trade”. This is a very serious issue because it means two things; first, that Indian local uranium reserves, radioactive nuclear materials, and facilities are not protected and are prone to black marketing. Secondly, this scenario has emerged because India is not adhering to international bindings of nuclear safety and security such as UN resolution 1540 and (Convention on Physical Protection on Nuclear Material) CPPNM under IAEA to secure its materials, reserves, and facilities. But, the most damaging aspect in this scenario is the discriminatory behavior of the international community, which is criminally silent on the violations of norms, practices, and regulations necessary for nuclear safety and security.

Though in both incidents, Uranium was in natural condition, which cannot be used for making bombs; however; it should be of great concern, as even in its natural state the Uranium can spread considerable radioactivity if used with conventional explosives. Moreover, Indian authorities themselves are considering that these activities could be linked with national gangs involved in the illegal supply of uranium. This raises the point that actually how much natural uranium is illegally sold in the black market by India. Since these are only incidents that are being reported in the Indian media, there might be many incidents that have never been reported. Also, this gang was captured from near the area where Indian Uranium mines of Jharkhand are allocated, the likelihood of access of non-state actors to these mines cannot be denied. These incidents are critical for international security and stability because such radioactive material when sold in black markets could be brought by the non-state and states aspiring for nuclearization. Unfortunately, in such a scenario all the efforts currently going on to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be hampered. The recurring of these incidents reflect that India, despite being a member of CPPNM is not ensuring the protection of its nuclear materials from theft and sabotage by proper regulations, stringent mechanisms, and control. Other than CPPNM, India has also signed UN resolution 1540, which makes it mandatory for the states to ensure security regulations, mechanisms, equipment required for the security of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) from the non-state actors. But, surprisingly, so far the UN or any other international organization has not taken notice of these recurring events. Rather, these mishaps by Indian authorities are shoved under the carpet. These incidents have been reportedly re-occurring in India, media reported these events in 2003, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2016, 2019, and now again in 2021. 

Nuclear safety and security is a national matter of any state; however, against the backdrop of the potential damage, which these weapons can bring, they have become an international concern. Specifically, to an extent, where states are sometimes criticized, lauded, and sometimes rewarded for their behavior in this realm. In this regard, India appears as an exceptional case, where the formation of Nuclear Suppliers Group NSG to stop such events in the future has its roots in the Indian so-called peace nuclear explosion (PNE) in 1974. Ironically, a few years down the road, the same NSG gave a waiver to India for conducting nuclear export. Moreover, India was made part of many other regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement. Although, these decisions were carried out in lieu of geo-political realities, where the West regards India as a balancer against China but it gave a free hand to India. Even the US-based NTI Report on Nuclear Security Index gives India less score in nuclear safety and security regulations. At a time when many nuclear theft-related incidents have occurred in India in recent years, disgracefully, India still desires to become a member of NSG based on its so-called nuclear record.

To sum up the situation, the occurrence of back-to-back nuclear theft-related incidents has further exposed India’s nuclear credentials and its non-adherence to international practices of nuclear safety and security. If legal bindings such as CPPNM and 1540 would not be implemented in the future by India, the South Asian stability, as well as the international security, would be undermined. Moreover, if the international non-proliferation continues to remain lenient towards states like India, the rest would likely regard the international non-proliferation mechanism not just as discriminatory but even as hoaxing. Many states might prefer to proliferate for their own interests, which would not serve the non-proliferation mechanism and regime. A very candid example is that today even after two years of the last NPT review conference, the next has not been conducted and chances are that it might not be conducted this year.

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Uranium is being traded freely in the open market in India

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Terrorism

The Times of India has reported that a special police team arrested seven persons and recovered 6 Kgs of Uranium from them following raids at different parts of the city on Thursday. Bokaro SP Chandan Kumar Jha said, “We have seized the yellow substance and will send it to experts for tests. Uranium is a highly radioactive substance used at nuclear facilities.”

Police said the accused, suspected of being part of a national gang involved in the illegal uranium trade, searched for customers and fixed its price at Rs 50 lakhs per kg. Notably, a kilogram of Uranium sells for around Rs 18 crores in the global market, sources said. For the first time, Uranium has been seized in this industrial town, but in other parts of India, similar cases were reported several times recently.

Those arrested have been identified as Bapi Da alias Bapi Da alias Bapi Chandra, Anil Singh, Deepak Kumar, Krishna Kant, Hare Ram Sharma, Mahavir Mahto, and Pankaj Mahto. They are residents of different parts of the district. Deepak and Bapi have a criminal history. It is illegal to possess Uranium without a license in India, and violation of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, can attract stringent punishment.

Jha said police received information that some criminals are preparing to sell Uranium. A nine-member team headed by Chas DSP Mukesh Kumar and City DSP Kuldeep Kumar were involved in the raids. “It is still unclear how they got their hands on the radioactive metal. During interrogation, they mentioned West Bengal, Giridih, and a few other places. Seven mobile phones and a motorcycle were also seized from them,” he said.

Notably, Jharkhand is among a few states in the country that has uranium mines. Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) also has a uranium processing plant at Jaduguda, about 150km from Bokaro city.

Sources said police are also investigating to ascertain whether the arrested accused have any links with a similar racket busted by Maharashtra Anti- Terror Squad (ATS) on May 5 after it nabbed two persons. A total of 7.1 kg of natural Uranium worth Rs 21.3 crore was seized from the duo identified as Jigar Jayesh Pandya (27) and Choudhary (31).

It is a severe failure of the Government that hazardous materials are accessible by common people. It is the state’s responsibility, and the state must ensure the safety of the ordinary people. However, PM Modi has different priorities and over-engaged in non-issues. His focus to undermine minorities and the illegal occupation of Kashmir has made him over busy and left no time to safeguard the public interest. His extremist policies and brutalities against minorities are strongly condemned.

It is not the first time that Uranium has been traded like a regular commodity in the open market. It can be dangerous for India as well as the whole world. The law and order situation in India has deteriorated adversely, and criminals may avail this opportunity. The worst scenario will be if the RSS Hindu extremists got access to Uranium, then, definitely, the subcontinent is a one case. The fanatic RSS members are so vulnerable that they can go to any extent without considering the consequences.

Therefore it is appealed to the International community, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the UN to take serious notice and place preventive measures on the ground.

Being the next-door neighbor, Pakistan is under threat and has a responsibility to highlight such severe violations and may involve the international community to avoid similar cases in the future.

Pakistan on Friday, describing the reports of yet another incident of attempted illegal sale of Uranium in India as a “matter of deep concern,” reiterated its call for the thorough investigation of such incidents and measures for strengthening the security of nuclear materials to prevent their diversion.

In a statement, FO Spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri said the similar incident in Maharashtra last month and other such reports in the past “are a matter of deep concern as they point to lax controls, poor regulatory and enforcement mechanisms, as well as the possible existence of a black market for nuclear materials inside India.”

The UN Security Council Resolution 1540 and the IAEA Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) make it binding on states to ensure stringent measures to prevent nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands, the statement noted.

“Pakistan reiterates its call for [a] thorough investigation of such incidents and measures for strengthening the security of nuclear materials to prevent their diversion,” it added.

The press release said it was “equally important to ascertain the intent and ultimate use of the attempted uranium sale given its relevance to international peace and security as well as the sanctity of global non-proliferation regime.”

Uranium is used in several areas, including nuclear explosives and medical techniques. The very fact that some people stole or illegally mined Uranium raises concerns about nuclear safety and security in India. It also indicates the possibility of a nuclear market existing in India that could be connected to international players.

Pakistan had voiced serious concern last month, too, after reports of the Maharashtra seizure emerged, pointing to gaps in state control mechanisms there.

“We have noted with serious concern the reports about the seizure of more than 7kg natural uranium from unauthorized persons in India,” Chaudhri had said at the time.“Security of nuclear materials should be the top priority for all countries,” he added.

“There is a need for a thorough investigation of the matter as to how such sizeable quantity of uranium could become available outside any state control and identify the gaps which made this possible.”

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