As it prepares for future wars, the U.S. military must develop contingency plans in case its satellite capabilities are disrupted, several defense experts told a congressional panel Nov. 1.
The most effective strategy likely will be the development of more integrated communications and reconnaissance architectures that tie together military and commercial satellites services, as well as airborne capabilities, rather than developing protective measures for spacecraft, the experts said.
The military also needs to devote more attention to the threat that computer hackers pose to satellites and their ground control equipment, the experts told the House Armed Services Committee’s Asymmetric and Unconventional Threats Gap panel Nov. 1.
The House Armed Services Committee established six gap panels last month as part of its Congressional Defense Review that is being conducted in parallel to the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which is used to guide military budgets and other plans.
The Congressional Defense Review began in September, and is expected to wrap up in March or April, shortly after completion of the QDR, said committee spokesman Josh Holly.
The committee’s review is intended to produce a report that helps its members better analyze the QDR’s results and develop future defense authorization bills beginning in 2007, according to a committee fact sheet. The other gap panels are: Regional Powers, Regional Conflicts, Current and Emerging Nuclear Powers, Non-Traditional Missions and Catastrophic Disasters, Terrorism and Radical Islam.
Reps. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) lead the Asymmetric and Unconventional Threats Gap panel.
The panel will likely conduct another hearing in the near future featuring testimony from military officials about their ability to respond to potential threats to satellites, a congressional aide said.
These hearings are separate from those planned by Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, that are intended to focus on policy issues associated with space security, the aide said.
In brief interviews after the hearing, Akin and Cooper said that they are taking the dangers posed to satellites seriously, but said they view those threats as longer-term issues than other threats being reviewed by the panel.
“It’s something that we’re worried about, but not something we’re losing sleep over yet,” Cooper said.
Jim Lewis, senior fellow and director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank here, said hardening satellites against enemy attack is expensive and often takes up too much payload weight, hampering a design team’s ability to add capability to a satellite.
Instead, Lewis said, using larger constellations of satellites that are much smaller than spacecraft today would make it more difficult for an enemy to cripple U.S. space capabilities by destroying just one or two satellites.
Having plans to fall back on commercial imagery or communications services if a military satellite is attacked also would be a less expensive and more practical measure than hardening satellites, Lewis said.
The Pentagon should also be ready to press aerial reconnaissance assets into service if necessary to replace an imagery satellite that is attacked, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, another think tank here.
The military also needs to do more to protect satellite control facilities and other nodes on its information networks from cyber attacks, said Ed Taylor, head of the communications and information technology division at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.
Unlike satellite capabilities, computer network expertise is an area where the U.S. military does not have a clear advantage over other nations, Taylor said during the hearing, noting that the levels of cyber-crime throughout the world indicate that even non-state actors could have significant capability in this area.
Protection against cyber attacks is often overlooked as the Pentagon addresses the protection of its satellite ground facilities, Lewis said.
An opponent who can use cyber-weapons to disrupt the control of a satellite, the flow of data from satellites to analysts and planners, or damage the integrity of that information, can gain a real advantage at a relatively low cost, Lewis said.
One way to address the vulnerability of satellite ground facilities is to decentralize the distribution of intelligence data collected from space, Lewis said. This data is often sent to a single point on the ground for distribution, making inviting targets, he said.
In contrast, t he GPS navigation constellation, which transmits its signal directly to users, offers a less vulnerable model, Lewis said. He noted, however, that considerable software development would be needed to facilitate the necessary automated processing for decentralized distribution system.