Secure Communications and the Militarization of Space

Looking down upon us are a seemingly never-ending array of satellites providing navigational, weather, and communication services. Nations now rely on satellites as an ever-increasing part of critical infrastructure for military and emergency services.

On 11 January 2007, some 11+ years ago, China sent a shot across the bow of all nations who rely on satellites for defense and national infrastructure. According to Rick Sanford, Vice President Strategy and Business Development at BridgeSat, Inc., on that date, China intentionally destroyed one of its own defunct weather satellites known as the “Fengyun-1C.”

They destroyed the satellite with an “anti-satellite” (ASAT) device they had been working on since 2005, which they shot into space aboard a ballistic missile, and directed the ASAT to barrel into the Fengyun-1C - destroying both the satellite and the ASAT into 900+ pieces of space debris.

The militarization of space had begun.

The Space-Arms Race

Fast forward to early September 2018. France’s Defense Minister, Florence Parly, said a Russian satellite, the Louch-Olymp (Olymp-K) had approached the Athena-Fidus in 2017 for the purpose of intercepting the satellite’s communications. Signals-Intelligence (SIGINT) collection of this type is an act of espionage, noted Parly.

The French Italian civil-military satellite, “Athena-Fidus” is located in geostationary orbit some 36,000 miles above the Indian Ocean, and provides via its 14 antennas operating within the government Ka band encrypted broadband communications, at three gigabytes per second.

Parly made sure there was no ambiguity as she called out Russia’s abnormal behavior, describing it as an act of space aggression. She stated, “We are well aware that other major players in space are deploying intriguing objects into orbit, experimenting with potential offensive capabilities, conducting maneuvers which leave no doubt as to their aggressive intent.”

In October 2017, the United States called out Russia for having launched a “space object” which was engaging in very abnormal behavior. Then in February 2018, testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and a statement for the record of Daniel Coates, the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), revealed how both Russia and China are actively pursuing ASAT weapons.

Specifically, Coates noted how both countries were working on both nondestructive and destructive counterspace weapons. Coates continued by describing how China and Russia are launching “experimental” satellites, as observed in October 2017, which are intended to advance counterspace activities.

But these counterspace activities are not limited to China, Russia, and the United States. Former head of U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Cecil Haney, said both Iran and North Korea area also researching and developing capability.

To counter this threat, the Space Fence project was revitalized. The current surveillance system can track 200,000 items in low- or medium-orbit, providing the U.S. real time tracking capability. The French, going forward, will “put surveillance cameras” on their satellites to know what objects/satellites are approaching their satellites.

So what of service providers? How are they protecting their communications and the data within?

Securing Space-Based Communications Assets

Sanford explains that most satellite service providers use commercial-grade encryption on their Telemetry, Tracking and Control (TT&C) to command their space craft. He commented that “cost is a major factor in many LEO constellations and encryption is often too costly to employ and still close the small LEO operator’s business case.

In the CubeSat market (space craft weighing ~ <1-40kg), TT&C channels are often left without protection because of those same cost-drivers.”

He continued on to note how the evolution to optical communications (lasers) reduces the footprint of the satellite’s signal and makes SIGINT collection more difficult than the traditional wideband RF (radio frequency) transmission. The former uses pinpoint accuracy, while the later provides wide area coverage.

When the lights go out (intentionally or accidentally) on a specific satellite, operators rely on networked constellations and ground-based networks. Sanford commented, “the general premise is that so long as some of the satellites survive a lights-out event, services will remain for some portion of users not directly communicating with the affected satellite(s).”

Going forward, governments and service providers both must address the vulnerability of space-based communications assets. The defense of the critical infrastructure lays within the hands of the governments.

The private sector, which is building and operating the satellites must, according to Sanford, “now plan for contingency operations in the event that satellite connectivity is no longer available. Space weapons are an uncomfortable reality and both sectors must work together to minimize the impacts of the worst-case scenario.”