Panelists: Threats to U.S. Milsatcom Systems Come in All Forms

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WASHINGTON — As resiliency becomes the buzzword du jour for U.S. military satellite constellations, the Defense Department must also consider the security of its satellite ground stations, a panel of experts here said Sept. 19.

The panel, titled “A Day Without Space: The Future of Milsatcom” and hosted by the Space Enterprise Council and the George C. Marshall Institute, followed up on a report of the same name that has created ripples in the military satellite community. 

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonprofit think tank here, is the report’s author.

Harrison said military leaders too often assume “the next war will be like the last war” and in the process leave themselves vulnerable to unforeseen attack scenarios. But as the U.S. military has become more dependent on space-based assets over the last 25 years, officials must be prepared for any attack that could interrupt satellite services and thus limit the effectiveness of troops in the field, panelists said.

“The low-hanging fruit for an attack is ground systems,” said Justin Keller, director of advanced programs for Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ military line of business. 

Keller said the threats to space capabilities are not limited to antisatellite weapons (ASATs), such as the ground-launched missile that China used to destroy one of its own satellites in 2007. They may also include more pedestrian items such as rifles, scissors to cut fibers, and sledgehammers. He pointed to a 2003 incident in the Netherlands where protesters smashed three satellite dishes at a ground station with sledgehammers.

Panelists repeatedly said the U.S. military does not want to find itself in a situation where it is spending billions of dollars on a space capability that an adversary can neutralize with an investment of $5 million or less. 

“ASATs have created a problem where enemies could spend you into the ground” given the high cost associated with space systems, Harrison said.

Greg Edlund, director of communications systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, described such threats, especially those to ground stations, as “asymmetric.” He suggested military officials focus on reducing or eliminating that vulnerability. The most secure satellite systems, he noted, will have multiple nodes in multiple orbits and can be easily maneuvered.

One of the biggest threats to military satellite programs these days is the budget environment, where sequestration and other pressures are making it difficult for the military to sustain existing programs, let alone contemplate new ones.

But Edlund said the budget environment presents an opportunity to let the Air Force watch its technologies evolve and improve incrementally rather than try to make oversized leaps in technology and add hundreds of requirements to each project.

Such a change in philosophy would reduce the complexity of program oversight, Edlund said, a sentiment seconded by Harrison.

Too often, “it’s too many cooks in the kitchen,” Harrison said.

The panel, which included Marc Johansen, vice president of satellites and intelligence programs in Boeing’s government operations office here, supported Harrison’s suggestion — a major theme of his study — that the Air Force leverage its existing satellite communications capabilities to create a new class of service that fills the gap between protected and unprotected systems.

Boeing is the prime contractor for the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system, a constellation that ultimately will consist of 10 satellites providing basic communications services to U.S. and allied forces throughout the world.  

Boeing specifically negotiated for less government oversight in its most recent WGS contracts in order to help save the government money.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency system of supersecure, nuclear command and control satellites, as well as the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System constellation.