CAPITOL HILL: In a rare public event, the No. 2 member of the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee (HPSCI), Rep. Adam, said a cyber attack on a US satellite could be considered an act of war.
While this may sound like common sense to some, the question of whether using cyber to interfere with or disable a military or intelligence satellite would constitute an act of war has been one of those questions like the old philosophic chestnut: “If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Senior military and intelligence officials have been extremely careful in answering the cyber question, in part because determining the difference between an act of espionage and one that constitutes an attack can be challenging.
“Measures taken against our strategic Indication and Warning (I&W) systems (spy satellites) would obviously be viewed as provocations, if not belligerent acts; a foreign actor also could initiate… a reversible process, like Radio Frequency (RF) jamming,” Schiff said in his prepared remarks.
The decision to react — and how to react — would be complex, Schiff made very clear in an appearance this morning before the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Space Breakfast. We would need to be able to figure out just who actually committed the attack — attribution. Then we need to decide how much we can make public about the attribution. That will depend, to some degree, on how much information can safely be made public, Schiff said. If all those conditions can be met, then the US could target one of the enemy’s satellites. Or a ground station. Or another target. All those factors must be weighed carefully.
“Of course we can better guard against such things by requiring our intelligence satellites to carry defensive mechanisms on board. But the trouble is how that move could be perceived internationally,” Schiff noted. “The addition of a defensive capability might make our overhead satellites start to seem like airborne weaponry.”
And “if you get into a tit-for-tat exchange you may end up costing yourself more than your adversaries,” Schiff said.
One of the most difficult conundrum about space warfare — beyond attribution — is just what constitutes an attack. Part of deciding that involves defining what constitutes a valid target and a lawful means of attack. Since much of what the US can actually do to deter an enemy in space is highly classified, we didn’t learn much from Schiff, but he did say this:
“In terms of our space systems, obviously, I can’t go into any detail on it here, but there are a whole host of ways of attacking a space system. They can be attacked kinetically from the ground. They can be jammed. They can be disabled. They can attacked through cyber, and they can be attacked by other bodies also in space,” Schiff said. “And so we are certainly investing in technologies to help us make our space systems more resilient and to defend the space systems up there already that may not be very resilient and guard against cyber attacks.”
So deterrence is crucial, as is making systems more resilient. More on this soon.