WASHINGTON: Watch the skies. While they’re far from falling, the head of Air Force Space Command said today, the heavens aren’t the “peaceful sanctuary” they once were, either. Nothing short of a nuclear missile could pull the plug on a satellite constellation as robust as the Global Positioning System (GPS), Gen. William Shelton said, semi-reassuringly. But American policymakers, commanders, and citizens need to stop relying blithely on 100 percent performance from space systems, he went on, because potential adversaries pack an increasingly sophisticated arsenal that ranges from computer viruses to jamming to lasers to anti-satellite missiles.
“Space has really become a utility. You plug in, take it for granted, and don’t even think about where the services came from,” Shelton said this morning at the Atlantic Council. Smart bombs, cell phones, and high finance all rely on GPS, for example. (The financial transactions use the GPS signal for precision timing, not location). Spy satellites are playing a role — Shelton wouldn’t say what — in figuring out who really shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over the Ukraine. Even ground troops have come to depend on satellite bandwidth to communicate, track each others’ locations, and watch video from drones.
“Space is foundational capability for all military operations, yet we don’t really plan for anything but success,” said Shelton. Space assets are expensive but reliable, with 72 successful launches in a row and satellites routinely lasting longer than planned, so the Pentagon buys the bare minimum to cover the need. “We build just enough capability and we build it just in time,” he said, which, while attractive in a tight budget, leaves no margin for losses to accident or hostile action.
One veteran of both current space operations and futuristic wargames put it this way: “It’s not about how the Chinese can launch an anti-satellite weapon and take out any satellite in Low Earth Orbit [LEO],” Col. Alan “Rebel” Rebholz said at a recent Air Force Association breakfast. “It’s about how we prevent them from doing that. Whether it’s through physical action or State Department demarches, I don’t care, [but] we can’t afford to put a new LEO ISR satellite into orbit because we just don’t have the cash.”
As an extreme example of what Shelton called “a big target,” the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites provide secure communications to commanders from the tactical level to the President. They’re also so expensive there are only four of them, Shelton said: “If an adversary were to take out one, just one satellite in the constellation, a geographic hole is opened and we potentially have a situation where the president can’t communicate with forces in that part of the world.”
“Now, we have a clear and present danger, [and] our satellites were not built with such threats in mind,” Shelton said, his words perhaps sharpened by his impending retirement in September. “I don’t believe we can just continue the status quo, stick our heads in the sand, and just hope for the best. I don’t think that’s a good strategy at all.”
Threats: From Hackers To Nukes
So what threats does Shelton worry about? “There’s a whole host of these things from the reversible to irreversible,” the general said. At the low end are cyber attacks, which he thinks are easy for enemies but try but unlikely to do actual damage. At the high end are electromagnetic pulse attacks that require the resources of a nuclear-armed nation-state but could fry satellites wholesale.
“The non-state actor is going to go after this from the lowest common denominator,” said Shelton and that’s probably hacking. While even teenage “script kiddies” can download tools to attack US government websites, however “many of the networks that we use to control space systems are closed networks, there aren’t access [points] to the Internet,” Shelton said.
Of course, the Iranian nuclear program wasn’t online either, but Stuxnet wormed inside anyway, probably on a thumb drive used by a negligent or subverted employee. “You would need some kind of insider capability to get to that, but we are even hardening against the insider threat as well,” Shelton said. “We’re making sure particularly with our new ground systems that we’re designing information insurance in from the start” to stop improper use of the system, even by an authorized insider.
Next up Shelton’s spectrum of concern is jamming, whether of satellite communications signals or GPS. Even a non-state group could do jam a specific satellite or in a local area, “but we have ways of finding those jammers,” he said, with a smile that suggested smart bombs would hit those locations in short order. It would take nation-state capabilities to jam on a larger scale, he told reporters afterward. Even then a major interruption of GPS, with its unusually robust constellation of 31 satellites, is “very unlikely, very unlikely.”
That said, if the smart bomb that was supposed to hit your target missed someone jammed its GPS receiver, Col. Rebholz told me, it’s small comfort that the global satellite constellation is unaffected. Similarly, when it comes to communications, “a space guy will say, ‘well, if your UHF is getting jammed, just move it to SHF. If SHF is getting jammed, move it to EHF,” he said. But a frontline tactical user has a very different perspective, he said: “I can’t migrate from UHF to SHF because I don’t have the terminals. I can’t migrate to EHF because nobody has those terminals because they’re too darn expensive.”
“We like to think it’s real sexy talking about protecting space stuff, but man, we’re going to get more bang for the buck talking about the ground segment” — basically, the receiver — “and the link,” Rebholz said. “If you don’t protect the link, what’s the point?
The Air-Sea Battle initiative — led by the Air Force and the Navy — is trying to take that big-picture approach, Rebholz told me. “We’re trying to unlearn the mistakes that we’ve made for the last 20 years of fighting an enemy that can’t do dirt for jamming,” he said. “What’s hard about com jamming? What’s hard about GPS jamming? Absolutely nothing.”
Jamming techniques date back, in fact, to World War I. Much more novel — and higher on Shelton’s spectrum of threats — are laser weapons, which can temporarily dazzle a sensor or, at higher power, do permanent damage. The Navy is leading the fielding of low-power lasers to shoot down drones, but the power required for anti-missile and anti-satellite lasers remains perhaps a decade or more away.
By contrast, both the US and China have successfully tested anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles. Shelton took pains to differentiate the programs, saying the US test shot was a one-time experiment: “We stood it up very quickly [and] we stood it right back down; we have no ASAT capability right now.”
Of course, the very fact that the US quickly converted a Navy Standard Missile into a satellite-killer suggests we could easily do it again — and so could any nation with sufficiently sophisticated missile technology. Whereas a high-altitude nuclear explosion would eventually fry the electronics of “everything in Low Earth Orbit,” including the attacker’s own satellites, ASAT missiles can pick their targets, starting with those scarce and costly super-satellites Shelton worries about so much.
Solutions & Sequestration
A “very complex, big satellite…basically represents a big target for an adversary,” Shelton said. AEHF satellites provide both tactical and strategic communications, even command and control of nuclear forces. Missile warning satellites have both wide-area “scanning” sensors to detect a launch and focused “staring” sensors to focus in on one. In the next generation, Shelton asked, why not split each of these into “two or maybe three satellites” (or more), each smaller, less complex, less expensive, and more expendable?
“To me, that represents a much more survivable architecture,” he said. “That’s probably where we will need to head to be survivable.”
Space Command has “many” studies underway to figure out the best approach, Shelton said: “Stay tuned for those results in early 2015.”
“We’ve got to make decisions soon,” the general said, because current satellites will need replacing in the mid-2020s. “With long budgeting and development timelines, we’re looking at decisions in the FY 17 program, which works through Pentagon next year.”
Even small satellites cost a lot of money, however, and next year is also the year of decision on sequestration, the automatic across-the-board budget cuts that current law would reinstitute in 2016.
Air Force Space Command already cut “close to $1 billion” out of its annual budget over 2014 and 2015, Shelton said, partly by efficiencies but reducing capabilities “substantially” as well. “This was very, very painful and I still have lots of people mad at me,” the general said. “Should Congress decide not to grant relief, I don’t know how my command can absorb can absorb the mandated reductions.”