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US Forces Can’t Hide from Ubiquitous Satellites. They Need to Fool Them.

A new generation of deception-and-denial ideas is needed to counter global monitoring from space.

We are accelerating, on the wings of 5G and long-endurance drones and low-earth-orbit satellites, toward a future where everyone will have easy access to realtime geolocation and even video of U.S. military forces. The countermeasures of past decades, from shutter control to careful timing of sensitive force movements, are all but drained of their potency. Powerful states and non-state actors alike will soon be able to track U.S. and allied military equipment, detecting patterns of training and operations.

This phenomenon — I’ve called it a GEOINT singularity — was not unpredicted. Nearly 20 years ago, a thesis titled “The End of Secrecy” by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Beth Kaspar discussed the implications of transparency to U.S. military competitiveness and recommended a variety of activities ranging from innovating new doctrine and developing fast decision-making processes to integrating camouflage, concealment, and deception both vertically and horizontally into military operations. In her work, Lt. Col. Kaspar wrote, “DoD should go back to basics and actively incorporate deception into all organizational levels and all levels of warfare.”

Typical deception and denial techniques, such as camouflage, are well known to military operators and warfighters. But these ideas must be advanced in ways that adjust to frequent and continuous monitoring in various bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Hyperspectral sensors can identify chemical elements from space and could, in principle, make a camouflage canopy stick out like a sore thumb.

The national security community’s attempts to maintain levels of opacity or surprise by limiting commercial space-based imaging have created a false sense of security and neglected developments that are not under U.S. regulatory control. Even today, exercising shutter control — that is, ordering an American company to limit its overhead image collection at a certain time and place — is time-consuming and cumbersome. Such requests must pass from the military operator to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Secretary of Defense, and to the Secretary of Commerce, who then notifies the company operating the satellite. And these limits have no bearing on high-altitude pseudo satellites, i.e., balloons; airplanes; international space companies; or, of course, foreign governments.

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Better deception and denial techniques would allow the military to dispense with the increasingly irrelevant tool of shutter control, lifting the regulatory burden on the domestic commercial remote sensing sector and helping compete on a global scale. It would also allow commercial imaging to support public messaging for national security without revealing the capabilities of government systems.

U.S. military operators should be investing now in programs to mitigate the effects of a GEOINT singularity. Advancing and developing new deception and denial techniques may appear costly at first. But the alternative may be more expensive; indeed, restricting remote sensing licenses now would simply delay the cost to a later time when existing methods have become ineffective due to the growth of foreign remote sensing capabilities.

A “don’t look at me” approach to maintaining a military advantage is not feasible anymore. Instead, operators need to find new ways to hide.