The Complex

Son of a Blackbird: The Pentagon Eyes New Stealth Spy Plane

The general responsible for preventing World War III wants a new strategic reconnaissance plane to help him do it.

The Pentagon needs a new stealth plane capable of flying over the world's most heavily defended airspace and scooping up secrets, said U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command, today.

"We know that there will have to be some kind of penetrating" spy plane in the coming years, said Kehler, the man in charge of defending America from nuclear, cyber, and space (seriously) attack, during a breakfast with reporters in Washington.

Think of this plane as a successor to the legendary Cold War era SR-71 Blackbird (shown above). That jet flew at the edge of space at speeds of up to Mach 3 while taking pictures of the Soviet Union and other places the United States wanted to know more about.

In the two decades since the Cold War ended and the SR-71 was retired, the United States has largely relied on satellites to provide overhead spy imagery of the world's most heavily defended airspace.

Now, however, new threats to satellites -- think of China's anti-satellite missiles and cyberweapons -- mean that the United States may need to back them up with an air-breathing spy jet. What's old is new again.

(The United States is already looking to back up communications and GPS satellites using aircraft in an effort called the Joint Aerial Layer Network.)

"As you watch the potential threat develop to space assets, [it] is forcing us to go back and look again at how much penetrating air ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] we're going to need and what that should look like," said Kehler. "I don't know what that will look like."

Meanwhile, over the last decade of conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. military has fielded tons of new spy planes. However, almost none of them are stealthy. Most are relatively low-flying, propeller-driven drones or manned planes based on small, slow civilian planes. While these planes are great for finding terrorists, none of them would survive long in a fight against a sophisticated adversary.

It remains to be seen whether this aircraft will be part of the U.S. Air Force's new long-range stealth bomber program or any other stealth strike aircraft the United States is fielding.

"Are they going to be sensors as well as shooters?" asked the four-star general rhetorically. "All of those issues are on the table, particularly at this time when we have very interesting budget discussions going on."

The air service is developing a highly classified fleet of about 100 new stealth bombers expected to enter service in the 2020s (they're also expected to cost more than $500 million each). These jets will have the ability to carry out nuclear and conventional strike missions, and they might have the ability to be optionally manned. This means that the jets can be remotely controlled for some of the most dangerous conventional missions -- something that high-end reconnaissance sorties certainly qualify as.

The United States also has stealth fighters like the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that are loaded with advanced sensors and stealthy spy drones like the RQ-170 Sentinel. These jets will no doubt play a role in providing information from contested airspace, but these are tactical jets, not the big, fast, long-range, super stealth planes -- "national level assets," as military commanders like to call them -- envisioned by Kehler that complement strategic bombers.

If you want to read the tea leaves based on his comments, look at his words about budget constraints. They suggest that, among other options, the military is looking at how to pack spy gear onto its fleet of ultra-expensive new bombers that are rumored to be in secret development at sites in the American West like Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., and Area 51 in Nevada. Even with the pivot to Asia and its emphasis on strategic weapons, U.S. defense officials will be hard-pressed to justify another super-expensive aircraft program given today's focus on saving federal cash. (Budget concerns are already prompting some in the Air Force to talk about scrapping or at least delaying the new bomber's unmanned capabilities.)

Another option could be that the military is looking at how to use other secret stealth drones, or even new missiles currently in development, combined with new sensors as the model for a strategic spy aircraft.

The urgency with which the United States pursues a new high-end spy plane will likely be driven by how quickly "the threat related to space" systems changes, said Kehler.

So there you have it. Twenty years after the United States retired its fleet of super-sexy spy planes in favor of satellites, it has decided that there is once again a need for such aircraft. (I suppose this gives all the aircraft spotters hanging out in the Nevada desert who have been wondering what the United States would replace the SR-71 with have something to look forward to.)

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National Security

Here's How Foreign Spies Are Now Getting U.S. Weapons Tech

Forget the shady middlemen; never mind the students just a little too eager to find out the particulars of engines and warheads. Today, when foreign spies want to acquire America's latest weapons technology, they just hack into networks and steal the digital designs. 2012 marked the the first time, overseas intelligence agencies used cyber espionage - rather than the old-fashioned kind -- as their number one way to pilfer information on U.S. weapons.

That's according to a new report  by one of Pentagon branches responsible for preventing such spying. Not coincidentally, perhaps, half of all successful incidents in 2012 of espionage against American defense contractors originated in Asia, up from 43 percent the previous year. THis report higlights what plenty of us have come to grasp intuitively, cyber attacks are steadliy replacing -- or at least complementing -- attempts to flat-out purchase U.S. defense technology or simply ask for more information about it as the top MO of industrial intelligence operators.

This shift from overt attempts at collecting information on U.S. weapons to cyber theft means that it may become more difficult to detect when a rival is trying to gain access to America's defense secrets. It also shows why the Obama administration has been in such a tizzy of China's alleged industrial espionage.

According to the report from the Defense Security Service, these spies were particularly interested in gathering information on U.S. electronics; worldwide collection attempts in this sector spiked 94 percent from the year before.

A "substantial" number of those electronics were radiation-resistant electronics that can be used in nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, aerospace and space programs, according to the report.

"Foreign entities, especially those linked to countries with mature missile programs, increasingly focuses collection efforts on U.S. missile technology, usually aimed at particular missile subsystems," reads the report.

Why are nations with mature missile programs trying to steal secrets about American missile parts? To make their missiles even more deadly, of course.

"After a country masters the chemistry and physics required to launch a missiles, scientists and engineers can focus on accuracy and lethality, the desired characteristics of modern missiles," the report notes.

Getting their hands on U.S. missile parts will also help these countries defend against American weapons.

"Reverse-engineering would probably give East Asia and the Pacific scientists and engineers a better understanding of the capabilities of the targeted and acquired technology to develop countermeasures to U.S. weapons systems," reads the document.

Overall, foreign spies' top four American targets were "information systems; electronics; lasers, optics and sensors; and aeronautic systems technologies," according to the report.

All of these are crucial parts of the weapons that have given the U.S. a clear advantage on battlefields for the last 20 years. Information systems are how the US military passes massive amounts of intelligence and communications data. Meanwhile optics, lasers and sensors are key technologies that help American drones spy on enemies and that guide its smart weapons onto targets. Aeronautic systems technologies, as you know, are the parts that make up the Pentagon's next-generation rockets, stealth drones and fighters -- exactly the types of weapons that nations like China are trying to replicate.

The report doesn't specifically call out China as the home of these spies. But let's be honest, the vast majority of espionage attempts originating from Asia are likely coming from China.

"DSS continues to take the politically correct route and hide China within the ‘East Asia and Pacific' category, disappointing," Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer of the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, told Killer Apps after reading the report.

The Defense Security Service document was published on July 17, two days before David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency told Killer Apps that his agency is constantly finding new attempts by foreign government to install spyware on U.S. weapon systems. (In 2011, a Senate investigation found that tons of counterfeit electronic parts made in China were making their way into U.S. weapons; these parts could hide spyware or ‘back doors' allowing enemies to take over or disable the weapons.)

Far East countries -- who accounted for 54 percent of the interest in American missile tech -- targeted everything from the Standard Missiles and Ground Based Interceptors used for missile defense to TOW antitank missiles, Trident Submarine launched nuclear missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Unlike overall trends in espionage, spies kept things old fashioned when going after missile tech, trying to either buy it outright or simply requesting information about such technology.

Interestingly, DSS found that successful attempts to get information on missile technology via cyber means are "relatively low." However, because digital espionage allows spies to be even sneakier than outright attempts to steal information, such efforts may go unnoticed.

When cyber espionage "goes unrecognized or unreported by cleared contractors, industry does not generate a report, making such instances unavailable for analysis in this data set," reads the DSS report.

The DSS report largely confirms what any casual news reader has seen over the last few years -- the Far East, led by China, is pushing to build military technology rivaling the U.S.'s by any means necessary.

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