WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday announced the Trump administration is laying the groundwork a new Space Force and eventually a separate military branch, dedicated to space.
While the merits of a new organization are debatable, U.S. national security space systems are vulnerable to a wide array of threats, ranging from cyberattacks and jamming to anti-satellite missiles, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report published earlier this year. Russia and China, and to a lesser degree North Korea and Iran, are all threatening America’s military through its dependence on space.
“Given our dependence and that of our allies and partners on space, the loss of critical assets today could prove decisive to our ability to monitor critical events like missile launches or nuclear tests, or to successfully prosecute a military campaign,” retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, the former chief of U.S. Strategic Command, said in the forward to the report. “Urgent action is needed.”
Here are four of the space threats that a dedicated service branch might address:
1) Kinetic physical weapons. Satellites are vulnerable to objects that can be launched into space to take them out (like ballistic missiles) or a satellite that can be placed in orbit and intentionally maneuvered into another satellite’s path. Ground stations can be attacked by conventional military weapons or disrupted through an attack on the power grid.
China, as Pence mentioned Thursday, destroyed one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit in 2007 and has since developed a capability likely able to destroy geosynchronous satellites. Russia is reportedly reviving Cold War-era efforts to develop missiles that target satellites and weapons that can maneuver close to satellites to damage or destroy them. (Both Iran and North Korea could modify missiles for a crude anti-satellite capability.)
2) Non-kinetic physical weapons. Lasers, high-powered microwaves and electromagnetic pulse weapons — like a nuclear detonation in space — can have physical effects on satellites and ground stations without making physical contact with them. Lasers can also be used to temporarily dazzle or permanently blind mission-critical sensors on satellites, while high-powered microwave weapons, best deployed from another high-flying platform, can disrupt or permanently damage a satellite’s electronics.
Pence called out Russia’s work to develop an airborne laser that would be able to destroy space-based systems, but China is believed to already have much of the technology necessary to field an operational capability to dazzle or blind a satellite. And last year, Chinese media celebrated the development of a shipboard, miniaturized microwave weapon that could evolve into an orbital anti-satellite system. In 2011, the Christian Science Monitor quoted an unnamed European intelligence source stating that Iran managed to “blind” a U.S. satellite by “aiming a laser burst quite accurately” — sparking speculation it obtained the technology from Russia or China.
3) Electronic warfare. Radio frequency signals can be used to jam or spoof satellite uplinks and downlinks. Spoofing the downlink from a satellite can be used to inject false or corrupted data into an adversary’s communications systems, or even to hijack the satellite. The technology needed to jam many types of satellite signals is commercially available and relatively inexpensive, according to CSIS.
In 2014, Russian jamming in Ukraine resulted in the loss of GPS for radios and phones, as well as the grounding of some remotely piloted aircraft. Iran jammed Voice of America transmissions on the Telstar 12 satellite in 2003, jammed BBC and VOA broadcasts on the Hot Bird satellite in 2010, and claimed to have spoofed GPS to down an American RQ-170 drone in 2011. North Korea used its GPS jamming capabilities against South Korea in 2010, in 2011 coinciding with a U.S.-Korean exercise, in 2012 and again in 2016. However, it’s unclear if the North has uplink jammers to disrupt military satellites.
Jamming activities can be difficult to detect or distinguish from accidental interference. In 2015, Gen. John Hyten, then-commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, noted that the U.S. military was jamming its own communications satellites an average of 23 times per month.
4) Cyberattacks. Here are some possible intrusion points for a cyberattack: antennas on satellites and ground stations, the landlines that connect ground stations to terrestrial networks, and the user terminals that connect to satellites. Hackers, if they’re sophisticated enough, can monitor data, insert corrupted data, or “shut down all communications and permanently damage the satellite by expending its propellant supply or damaging its electronics and sensors,” according to the CSIS report.
Theoretically, Russia, Iran and North Korea might use their cyber capabilities to attack U.S. satellites. China, however, has been implicated in cyberattacks that in 2014 caused the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite information and weather systems to stop transmitting for two days. In 2008, China was implicated in an attack on NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite that achieved the steps to command the satellite but stopped short of issuing commands.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.