Lawmakers sound alarm on space security

Lawmakers sound alarm on space security

Experts and lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday lamented that more hasn't been done to prevent strategic attacks against satellites, despite knowing for a decade that they are increasingly vulnerable.

Retired military officials and a former deputy administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency were among those testifying at a joint hearing between the House Homeland Security Committee and House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Of particular importance are the constellation of satellites that run GPS, which quietly provide critical functions to the energy, telecommunications and finance sectors in addition to its more common navigation uses. 

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"Many are us remember the tagline from the 1979 movie 'Alien': 'In space, no one can hear you scream.' From my perspective, apparently no one can hear you scream about space vulnerabilities either," said William Sheldon, a former commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. 

"Many have banged the gong since 2007, but 10 years of studies and policy debates have not produced tangible improvements in our space defense posture. If you know the armed burglar is on the front porch, you do not wait until he’s inside to take action."

Air Force Space Command runs the GPS system, which provides more than just location services. Due to the mechanism with which the satellites triangulate distances, GPS also provides an extraordinarily accurate standardized timing system. Electric grids and telecommunications use that timing to maximize throughput on their lines. The financial sector uses it to accurately log trades that often come in on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis.

"Satellite services have become analogous to electricity, a utility we take for granted," said Sheldon. 

There are, however, an increasing number of threats. In 2007, China demonstrated the capacity to launch weaponry from the ground to destroy a satellite. There are also a growing number of low cost, localized jamming devices and fake-signal broadcasting devices.  Hackers could also conceivably attack ground-based receiving stations, and space weather or debris could harm GPS signals. 

The Obama administration nixed plans to implement a nautical location system known as eLoran as a backup in case of a GPS outage, citing cost concerns. 

"Here we are, 10 years after [China destroyed a satelite], with nothing to show but a whole pile of studies," said Sheldon. 

Lawmakers, including Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiDem rep. slams Trump’s LaVar Ball attacks as racially motivated Armed Services Dem: Pentagon not forthcoming about Niger attack Rivalry on right emerges between ‘the two Marks’ MORE (D-Calif.), have backed eLoran as a backup for nearly as long. 

"It's somewhere south of $100 million," he said, noting a recent effort to fund eLoran that stalled after it cleared the House. 

"It's very cheap."

At the hearing, the lawmakers and witnesses hinted at the possibly of granting space a critical infrastructure designation at the Department of Homeland Security. 

Joseph Nimmich, a former deputy administrator at FEMA, said that Homeland Security struggles with the efficient protection of satellites because no one section of the agency is designed to focus specifically on it. 

Nimmich said FEMA used satellites to predict weather and evaluate damages from catastrophes, saving as much as 90 percent by using the latter instead of investigators on the ground. 

Rep. Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineOvernight Regulation: Justice, AT&T trade accusations over CNN sale | House panel approves bill to boost drilling on federal lands | Senate advances Trump EPA air nominee Overnight Tech: Feds, AT&T trade accusations over CNN sale | Ex-Yahoo CEO grilled over breach | Senate panel approves sex trafficking bill Overnight Energy: Senators grill Trump environmental pick | EPA air nominee heads to Senate floor | Feds subpoena ex-Trump adviser over biofuels push MORE (R-Okla.) suggested allocating money to space security as part of President Trump's proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. 

But without a formal plan, Sheldon said he feared any real change could take years in addition to how long it took to decide to move forward with space security strategies. 

"Since satellites have fixed lifetimes, and you need to plan for the death of a satellite, the decision not to move forward is a de facto decision," he said.

Witnesses and lawmakers agreed the decision to move forward should come sooner than later. 

"We have put all of our eggs in one basket, and that basket is fragile," said Nimmich.