The emergence of near-peer allies such as China and Russia presents new concerns to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the organization’s director, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, said July 19 at the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum.

The DIA is charged with providing policymakers with intelligence on the military threats posed by foreign governments and non-state actors.

Here are four issues America’s highest ranking military intelligence officer says are keeping him up at night:

- Cyberwarfare

Without mentioning specific nations posing a threat, Ashley emphasized his broad concern over cyberattacks from hostile powers. With an increasing number of devices and systems connected to the internet, the vulnerability of infrastructure, power grids, banking and more to cyber attacks is a major concern, he said.

“That’s kind of the one that keeps me up at night,” he said. “Not to make light of it, but there’s some great briefs the NSA will give you and you literally throw your phone away on the way out.”

- Threats to National Security Space

“We’re seeing a period of great competition that is moving its way into space, and the risks there, obviously from a warfighting standpoint, is position, navigation and timing, [meteorological data and] missile early warning systems.

Ashley referred to an unclassified document released by the DIA earlier this year that lays out the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Russia and China in space. Among the capabilities under development by those four nations are directed energy weapons, direct ascent weapons, and co-orbital satellites. Co-orbital satellites are able to essentially nestle up to another satellite in orbit and possibly stealing data or directly damaging the other satellite.

“You have the ability to damage a sensor, you can cut lines, you in fact could disable that with a co-orbital satellites,” explained Ashley.

Another major concern to national security space is environmental. Space debris, deactivated satellites and the broken pieces of other satellites and launch vehicles, pose a major threat to active spacecraft. Objects as small as 10 centimeters can destroy military satellites in a collision, and there are about 21,000 of those objects, said Ashley. Finding a solution to managing that space debris is a problem the DIA is focused on, he noted.

- Hypersonics

Hypersonic weapons, missiles able to reach Mach 5 and beyond, pose a unique threat in that they operate in a fundamentally different way than the traditional ballistics the United States’ missile defense systems were built to defend against. While traditional ballistic missiles have a set course that make intercepts possible, the speed of hypersonics and their ability to maneuver en route makes interception significantly more complex.

“Part of what we have to develop, and this gets into artificial intelligence, algorithms, advanced analytics, is can you be predictive in nature in how that vehicle is going to operate. And so we have to gather a lot of data, structuring algorithms, and see how we can do that,” said Ashley.

Defeating hypersonic weapon systems requires rethinking missile defense, and Ashley noted that the military is already taking apart hypersonic missiles and learning how they operate in order to neutralize the threat.

- Artificial intelligence

Developing artificial intelligence and machine learning programs to process the vast amounts of data that the intelligence community collects is essential, Ashley noted. By giving rote tasks to machines, like processing images and identifying hospitals, human analysts are freed up to interpret that data and make hard decisions," said Ashley.

“It is allowing analysts to spend time doing analysis and not having to do a lot of just rigorous kinds of work. It also gives you insights that you may never see because of its ability to aggregate information together,” he said.

Ashley referred to the still-under-development Machine-Assisted Analytic Rapid-Repository System (MARS), a system that will use machine learning to process vast amounts of information from intelligence community databases and present it in useful ways for human analysts. MARS will replace the Modern Integrated Database, which was built more than two decades ago.

“By applying artificial intelligence, computer vision, we can have a much richer information environment with all that data in there,” said Ashley. “Quantum computing, quantum sensing and quantum communications are all integral to the way ahead."

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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