Every satellite-focused discussion involving experts from the military and Department of Defense (DoD) over the past half-decade has had at least some time dedicated to the topic of the threats facing military satellite networks – and for good reason. The once benign operating environment of space is now a heavily congested and contested environment. This means that satellites that were built and launched without mission assurance capabilities now operate in a domain where they could be compromised.
When you consider the mission-critical services that military satellites provide – and the essential capabilities and communications they deliver to – it becomes abundantly clear why this topic dominates so many military space discussions.
Compromising or neutralizing a military satellite now means that Americans have to go without essential communications connectivity, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data and mission-critical network applications and tools. These type of mission degradations would have immediate and negative impacts on lethality, and on the survivability of American troops.
Defending a Contested Space Domain
It comes as no surprise that defending satellites was once again the hot topic of discussion during a Defense One-organized, “Cocktails and Conversations,” event that was held just steps away from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center during one of the evenings of SATELLITE 2018 – one of the year’s largest satellite-focused conferences.
This event included a number of military satellite decision makers and thought leaders, each with incredible depth of experience and knowledge into the military’s satellite challenges and requirements. Present on the panel were:
- Douglas Loverro: President of Loverro Consulting, LLC and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy
- Colonel George R. Nagy: Chief of the Space Support to Operations Division at the Pentagon
- Deanna Ryals: Chief of the International Programs Division within The MilSatCom Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command
- Dr. Brian Weeden: Director of Program Planning at the Secure World Foundation
The conversation began with basic overviews about DoD satellite strategy and the ongoing wideband analysis of alternatives (AOA) before shifting to the topic of resiliency. As it turns out, resiliency and mission assurance aren’t new issues, which was well illustrated by this anecdote from Dr. Weeden, “I was looking at some documents from the end of the Ford Administration, they were worried about threats to U.S. space systems from a growing adversary counter-space problem and the fact that their systems were not designed to be able to defend themselves or be survivable in the face of an attack.”
That administration ended more than 40 years ago.
No simple solution for satellite resiliency
Although this is clearly an old challenge, there has yet to be a perfect solution implemented across the DoD – most likely because there is no one, simple solution. As Mr. Loverro elaborated, “You can’t just build a bunch of satellites and say you’re resilient. You can’t just go ahead and put armor on your satellite and say you’re resilient. You can’t just go ahead and say just use commercial, or do responsive launch and say you’re resilient.” Instead, he challenged the military to, “…look at your mission, look at your architecture and the tools available and think about what makes it difficult – if not impossible – for someone to take that apart.”
Ultimately, multiple panel participants agreed that it’s going to be a combination of disparate solutions – a “basket of solutions” as Mr.
Weeden referred to it – that can be combined to better protect military satellite infrastructures and architectures. That “basket of solutions” was further defined by Mr. Loverro when he said, “It’s going to be a combination of proliferation, disaggregation, diversity, distribution, protection, proliferation and deception. Those factors can combine for any space capability that we know about to make them resilient, and – quite frankly – it doesn’t cost a lot of money if you combine them correctly.”
Although the panel all agreed that resiliency in satellite networks was of paramount importance for the DoD, they did disagree when it came to identifying exactly which threat was the largest one facing military satellites. Two of the panelists were concerned about cyber attacks and cyber threats impacting military satellites. Mr. Loverro was more concerned about a somewhat less sophisticated, albeit equally effective, threat to satellites – jamming.
According to Mr. Loverro, “Cyber attack against a variety of communications networks is a difficult challenge. But the far simpler thing that Russia can do. That North Korea can do. That Iran can do. That Botswana can do. That some guy in the middle of a field with a TV truck can do…is jamming. Jamming is very hard to protect against, unless you have the right equipment.”
And that’s an area where commercial satellite can help.
Getting down to the jam
When making the decision about which orbit to place their military satellites will take, the DoD chose GEO because fewer satellites could provide coverage for much of the Earth’s surface. Fewer satellites meant less money. But, as Mr. Loverro noted, “What is good for economics isn’t good for the military.”
Jamming a satellite’s signal requires being within the satellite’s beam – or coverage area. This is much easier with GEO satellites, because their coverage areas are so large. By launching military satellites into GEO, the coverage the military wanted came at a lower price tag, but with an increased risk of jamming. As Mr. Loverro explained, “GEO was cheap to launch, but harder to defend.”
But there are commercial solutions that can help protect military communications from jamming.
Today’s commercially-available High Throughput Satellites (HTS) utilize steerable spot beams that provide incredible throughput, but cover smaller areas. Some of these satellites are currently operating in MEO orbits, meaning they combine high throughput with low latency, and are naturally more prolific and harder to jam. By embracing these commercial HTS and MEO satellite constellations, the military can essential get anti-jamming capabilities baked in.
Luckily, the door could be opening for an increased role for commercial partners in the military’s space architecture – making these HTS and MEO constellations more readily available for military users. As part of the wideband satellite AoA, the DoD is exploring new ways to approach the construction of their satellite architecture, and is looking seriously at a more integrated network of commercial and military-owned satellites.
By building a combined architecture that embraces a combination of purpose-built, military-owned satellites and commercial capabilities, the military can better take advantage of the innovative new solutions that commercial providers are bringing to market. Based on statements from Mrs. Ryals, that could very well be in the cards:
“There’s a big push to expand and increase our partnerships for resiliency and national defense – to build capabilities together. I think that expands not just to allied partners, but also commercial partners. With the amount of commercial capability that’s out there and available today, we have to find ways to change the way that we procure SATCOM capabilities. We have to look through the AoA and look at how we’re approaching that balance of military vs commercial. But we recognize that the commercial industry is one of our biggest partners that we have not yet tapped to help us build this architecture and build this infrastructure.”
By tapping this previously under-utilized resource, the military can better protect its satellite capabilities from jamming and ensure that the warfighter never has to go without essential services again.
MEO and HTS constellations are the latest commercial innovations being embraced by the federal government, capable of securely delivering fiber-like bandwidth to practically anywhere on the planet. For additional information of these solutions, download the following resources: