Commentary | Milsatcom Security Claims Warrant Scrutiny

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Today’s U.S. national security doctrine and our ability to protect our interests and project power around the globe are disproportionately reliant on a continuously interconnected force. From the highest echelons of strategic command and control through all elements of the tactical force (air, surface, subsurface and ground), access to assured communications is a vital underpinning to mission success. Indeed, in virtually all military operations, assured communications is now assigned “go/no-go” stature. 

Not surprisingly, at a time when our adversaries are increasing in numbers, are more geographically dispersed and are rapidly adopting technological advancements, our ability to deliver that vital assured communications is increasingly challenged. 

Determined adversaries now widely recognize that denial of service attacks on elements of our communications infrastructure can be an efficient and low-cost way to disrupt our forces and their missions. The mechanisms for interrupting our communications include cyber, physical and electronic attack (e.g., jamming). 

The material and training required to pursue these means of denial are inexpensive and readily available to even modestly funded and unsophisticated adversaries. Ground infrastructure is vulnerable, as evidenced by a Feb. 5 report in the San Jose Mercury News that described a simple sniper attack on an electric power station near San Jose, California, in the early morning hours of April 16, 2013, that took out 17 transformers and six circuit breakers and caused $15.4 million in damage. Jon Wellinghoff, a former head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told National Public Radio in a Feb. 6 interview that had the attack gone on longer it might have led to a blackout in Silicon Valley.

The bulk of peacetime and uncontested Department of Defense military satellite traffic is carried over U.S. government “unprotected” systems like the Wideband Global Satcom system and over leased capacity provided by commercial satellite operators. These systems are susceptible to purposeful attack, and also suffer from self-interference (or “nuisance jamming”) on a regular basis. The very same attributes that make these “transponded” systems so economically attractive for large volumes of routine traffic also render them vulnerable to denial of service attacks. Accordingly, these systems are aptly described as “unprotected.”

While no system can be made invulnerable, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite system, along with its well-known predecessor, Milstar, was designed to provide assured communications in the most contested environments. It is not a boast to say that AEHF sets the highest standard for assured communications and is able to operate through substantial levels of attack. 

The terminology “protected communications” has become synonymous with the operational Milstar and AEHF systems, each being compliant against a set of well-established requirements to operate in the presence of jamming and other threats. Notably, late-model Milstar satellites, and all AEHF satellites, have responded to operational needs with significantly expanded capacity including a marked increase in tactical capacity for the next-generation warfight.

The Department of Defense and our allies now recognize that tactical users require increased levels of protection for their ever-growing levels of continuous communications. Moreover, tactical users’ data rate demands are much higher than those of strategic users and thus may require increased anti-jam capability over that required by strategic users. But in the quest for greater protection DoD is confronted with the great challenge of affordably bridging the gap between today’s “unprotected” systems and future capabilities perhaps even more secure than those provided by AEHF today.

The operators of unprotected military and commercial satellite systems have also recognized this dilemma and are trying to leverage existing infrastructure to expand their relevance beyond operations in an uncontested environment. One proposed path to counter jamming attacks is to seek “protection” through the incorporation of anti-jam features in ground terminals and modems. 

The potential business that might result from a breakthrough that makes classic “unprotected” satellite communications secure with a modest change to the ground infrastructure is huge. But so is the potential risk to the national defense mission and user population if the security fix to these systems turns out to be of little value in countering a determined adversary. I started by saying that modern warfighters are disproportionately reliant on assured communications. To claim that unprotected satellite communications can be made “AEHF quality” secure through the manipulation of the supporting ground infrastructure is at the least disingenuous, and at worst risks the mission and the lives of our warfighters.

Such claims cry out for clear standards and well-defined levels of protection in all communications security dimensions: physical, cyber and electronic. It will always be the case that not all users require the same level of protection all the time. But they do require a defined level of communication assuredness against low-cost, readily available threats to successfully execute their mission. We need to work to understand those needs, and then collectively find a way, not to assert a capability but to actually deliver it with the same hard work, candor, efficiency and purpose that define the very men and women who will take these systems into battle.

 

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Lyle Bien, a South Dakota cattle rancher, served as deputy commander-in-chief of U.S. Space Command.