US military satellites are vulnerable to hacking — but Trump’s ‘Space Force’ could help fix that
Last year, President Donald Trump called for the Department of Defense to start the process to form a “Space Force” as the sixth military force of the United States to ensure American dominance in space. Last week Vice President Mike Pence reiterated that call, while Congress is pushing its own ‘Space Corps’ proposal. In parallel, NATO defence ministers approved NATO’s first space policy in June. There are also rumors that NATO may recognize space as a ‘domain of operations’ during the upcoming London Summit.
There are fears that this would lead to the establishment of an offensive military capability in space, but a space force or corps doesn’t necessarily mean space warfare. So much of the security architecture and infrastructure of the U.S. and NATO already relies on space assets. These initiatives are not so much moving conflict into space as prudently acknowledging that forces are already dependent on space assets, and these need to be protected.
Countries such as Russia and China are increasing cyberattacks and electronic warfare upon critical infrastructure, including space. This puts not only defense systems at risk, but also the networks increasingly essential for NATO operations such as disaster relief, counterterrorism and conflict prevention, a new Chatham House report finds.
The report warns that policymakers need to grasp the full impact of these cyber vulnerabilities. The key will be shaping the approach to space security in the right way. In this regard, the Trump administration has given too much attention to so-called “dominance” in space and not much on how a Space Force would be configured. There is a better way, taking into account the importance of space to U.S. security and the best way to defend existing and future assets.
How important are space-based assets?
The U.S. relies heavily on space for its operations and has since the turn of the 21st century. The Chatham House report indicated that during the Iraq invasion in 2003, 68 percent of U.S. munitions were guided with space assets (such as laser-infrared and satellite guided munitions). Around 60 percent of the weapons used in the Afghan war were precision-guided munitions.
Space technology makes it possible to accurately identify locations — for instance, of personnel, forces and adversarial command and control centres (positioning); to determine the direction of an object — for instance the position of warships (navigation); and to synchronize timing across multiple end-users. Overall, this is known as position, navigation, and timing capabilities (PNT), a major component of which is the Global Positioning System (GPS), which is owned and operated by the U.S. government.
Space technologies provide near real time information on ballistic missile launches; data on weather forecasting; data to be used for planning, targeting, and intelligence assessment; data on space weather and space debris for mission assurance; and resilient communication services for command and control.
In fact, it is hardly possible to think of a military mission that does not rely on high-precision GPS, a mission where precision-guided munitions are not used for collective defence, or a mission where commanders cannot communicate with the fighters on the ground.
And yet these space assets are extremely vulnerable to disruption.
There have been a number of worrying recent incidents. Russia has been testing ways of interfering with civilian navigation services, jamming Finland’s civilian air navigation services during a NATO exercise in Finland and spoofing civilian ships in the Black Sea, letting them go off course. In 2014, the U.S. weather satellite system was hacked, blocking essential data used for disaster relief and the aviation sector.
While U.S. military satellites are better protected against cyberattacks, commercial platforms more vulnerable to attack are increasingly used for military purposes and could provide a way in to military systems.
A better space strategy
A smart approach to space security would start here, mitigating the potential weaknesses in the links between the commercial sector and the military. Procurement strategies should ensure military standards are applied to applicable civilian technology, and that security and technical expertise are considered from the design stage, not just in construction. The U.S. Government Accountability Office could take responsibility for the review of the security of space-based strategic assets.
Although the U.S. has the most advanced space capability, it still relies on key allies such as the United Kingdom, France, and Canada. A Space Force should also focus on linking national space operational centers with these allies and sharing intelligence in real time.
There is also a need to improve collaboration, information-sharing, innovation and investment in space technology among not just NATO allies but also the private sector.
These are incremental steps that might not make headlines with claims of US “dominance,” but they are the basis of an intelligent approach to this essential sector.
Dr. Beyza Unal is a senior research fellow with the International Security Department at Chatham House in London; she formerly worked in the Strategic Analysis Branch at NATO Allied Command and Transformation. Follow her on Twitter @beyzaunal