The US seeks to learn critical lessons from Hamas’s recent attack on Israel, particularly on two dimensions of unconventional warfare — the space and cyber domains.
The concern on these two warfare fronts of the 21st Century emerged as the US and Israel, and their spy agencies, had utterly failed to sense the impending attack much before it occurred or even when it began.
It is an understatement that Israeli and American agencies were caught unaware and surprised by the intensity of the Hamas attacks. It is believed that a regional power had helped Hamas with its planning, arming, and support to carry out the daring land, air, and sea strikes.
The two-day Hamas operation left hundreds dead, including infants and the elderly, and several more taken as hostages or left injured. Yet, the US and its ally’s spy satellites did not catch the attacks or get a whiff of its possibility much before it happened.
It has been argued among the American intelligence and security circles, including the industry, that satellites in geosynchronous orbit are too far away to catch much detail, and there aren’t enough satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) that can deliver constant, high-resolution imagery.
Need For Persistent Satellite Coverage
While space-based sensors aren’t a “cure-all” for U.S. intelligence needs, Hamas’s recent attack proved the need for persistent coverage from orbit, news website Defense One quoted Todd Harrison, a longtime defense analyst and managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights, as saying.
According to the report, the Pentagon has already begun an effort through the Space Development Agency to build a network of military satellites in LEO called the “Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.”
“If anything, the surprise attack by Hamas should spur nations to increase the capacity and coverage of their space-based ISR (Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance) systems,” Harrison said.
“The US and its allies like Israel have not yet built out the full suite of space-based ISR capabilities that they could, such as highly proliferated LEO constellations that provide continuous global coverage for optical, infrared, radar, and RF (Radio Frequency) sensing.”
Can See Anywhere, Hear Anything Worldwide: NRO
After the Hamas strike on Israel, the US’s National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), responsible for American intelligence satellites, coordinated with other intelligence agencies to ensure the nation’s satellites were capable and relevant.
NRO’s deputy director, Major General Christopher Povak, replying to a question at a Mitchell Institute event on October 10, said his agency would ensure the National Security Agency (NSA) and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA) have the required resources.
To another question, if NRO would conduct an internal review about its capabilities to avoid another surprise attack, Povak refused to guess what would happen in the future. But he exuded confidence in space-based ISR force’s ability to detect threats worldwide.
“We in the NRO and our partners across the intelligence community are not losing sight that there are hotspots, potential areas of concern that happen all around the world, and that’s where NRO systems, I think, provide both a tactical and strategic advantage,” Povak said.
“We can see the world, sense the world, and hear everything that’s happening at any given time,” he said.
Probing Why & How Hamas Attacked
Investigations are progressing on why and how exactly Hamas planned, prepared, and executed the October 7-8 attacks, which left a death toll of 3,000 Israelis and Palestinians.
Why were the Hamas attacks never expected? Since the Hamas strikes, officials have expressed shock over the failure of the Israeli intelligence agencies to sense what was coming.
US’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had commented on October 10 during a White House briefing that the US intelligence agencies were sifting through information and evidence on Iran’s culpability in the latest Hamas strikes on Israel.
Iran is “complicit” in the attack as they have provided funding and training for Hamas’s military. Still, the administration has no confirmation Iran knew about this attack in advance, Sullivan said.
“We are talking to our Israeli counterparts daily about this question. We’re looking back through our intelligence holdings to see if we have further information. We’re looking to acquire further intelligence,” he said.
Old School Communication In Tech Age
One estimate claims that Hamas used “old-school techniques” like in-person communication to share information among its members to plan and execute its terror strikes on Israel.
“Relying on ISR techniques that use technology to remote-monitor adversaries can come up short if the subject can avoid signals or movements that can be easily detected and analyzed from space or electronic sensors,” according to Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Clark suggested that the best option would be to adopt Artificial Intelligence-enabled algorithms to assess information such as human intelligence, social media, and physical movements.
“China uses these capabilities for social control of their populace. Although it would be illegal and inappropriate to use domestically, the US intelligence community could employ these techniques using open-source and classified intelligence information available on adversaries,” he said.
Watching Out For Cyber Attacks
US cybersecurity officials have noticed several hacking groups and cybercriminals were targeting Israel post the Hamas attacks, turning away from Russia, which was their focus following the Ukraine military operations.
However, the US National Security Agency’s director for cybersecurity, Rob Joyce, noted on October 9 that the American intelligence outfits had not yet seen any significant cyber campaigns on Israel.
Yet, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has been in “very close contact” with the Israeli National Cyber Directorate following Hamas’s unprecedented strikes last weekend, the NextGov reported.
CISA executive director Brandon Wales informed on October 12 that his agency was “working in partnership” with Israeli cyber forces to thwart and mitigate low-level cyberattacks since the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out on October 7, when militants swooped down on southern Israel from land, air, and sea to massacre hundreds of civilians and Israeli Defense Force personnel.
“We are lucky that Israel has a very sophisticated cybersecurity operation, both in their government and private sector,” Wales said at an event hosted by the Washington Post. “We have a lot of confidence in their capabilities.”
Following the Russian military operations, CISA expanded its partnership and collaboration with Ukrainian cyber agencies for training, best practices sharing, and joint services operations to protect Kyiv’s critical infrastructure from cyberattacks.
American cybersecurity agencies have partnered with Israeli cyber operations for many years for threat assessment, intelligence, information sharing, and coordination in policy and strategy. Israel’s cyber operations are considered among the top class globally.
Though no significant cyberattack has occurred on Israel in the week, Wales said the Israeli National Cyber Directorate had noted “denial of service” attacks and web defacements “that are fairly common from less sophisticated actors.”
“This is going to be an extremely challenging time for Israel,” Wales said. “We’re providing whatever support we can to protect them.”
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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