A little-known office that helps the U.S. government identify vulnerabilities in its satellite systems is hoping to continue operations despite having its previous benefactor retire from the military.
The Space Countermeasures Hands On Program (CHOP) almost had its funding cut off in 2001, when its parent organization, the Air Force Research Laboratory, was facing a budget crunch and indicated that it could not afford to continue to fund the work , according to John Holbrook, chief of space countermeasures with the laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
However, as concern about possible terrorist threats to space capabilities grew in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lt. Gen. Brian Arnold, then commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles, opted to pick up funding for the program, Holbrook said.
Arnold retired from the military in early 2005 and was hired recently by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif.
SMC plans to fund the Space CHOP through the end of 2007, according to Col. Jay Haywood, director of the SMC Space Superiority Wing. While plans have not been made for 2008 and beyond, SMC will likely continue to fund the Space CHOP, Haywood said.
“Their investigations have assisted SMC in the identification of shortfalls in vital resources and led to the initiation of technology efforts to address these issues,” Haywood said in a written response to questions. “Their fresh, enthusiastic and energetic approach to this effort helps ensure our nation’s freedom.”
The Space CHOP runs on a relatively small level of funding in comparison to many other items in the Pentagon budget — just over $500,000 annually, Holbrook said.
That money funds the salaries of two or three full-time staffers, and pays two or three teams of several junior officers to conduct studies, Holbrook said. Those lieutenants and captains, who take on the role of a terrorist cell, generally have an engineering background but are not space experts, according to Peter Withers, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer and Space CHOP management consultant.
Personnel who serve with the Space CHOP are generally young officers awaiting a training assignment or a new security clearance for a future position, Holbrook said. While the personnel have all been Air Force officers to date, Holbrook said he would like to recruit representatives from the other services.
The Space CHOP, which was modeled on a now-defunct office that performed similar vulnerability analyses for the Missile Defense Agency, began its work in 1999.
The Space CHOP teams conduct their analyse s based on information available in public sources like the Internet or libraries, Withers said. They also use “social engineering,” which can entail calling satellite program officials in an attempt to extract information that can be used to plan a possible attack, he said.
Team members often are able to obtain a significant amount of information over the phone — with or without the use of a false name — before they are asked for verification of their identity, Withers said. Other social-engineering techniques have included reconnaissance trips to the launch ranges at Vandenberg Air Force in California and Cape Canaveral in Florida, he said.
Personnel who serve with the Space CHOP are not allowed to use their clearances or contacts as a military member to gain access to information, Holbrook said.
This helps complement the analyses conducted by expert teams by providing a fresh look at vulnerabilities more representative of the way a terrorist cell might approach the issue, he said.
The average mission lasts about four months, after which the team presents an analysis of possible vulnerabilities that a terrorist cell could exploit to the program office that requested the study, Withers said.
In some cases, the studies run a few months longer to give the Space CHOP teams time to build simple hardware that could be used to interfere with a spacecraft, like satellite-tracking equipment or a communications signal jammer that disrupts uplinks and downlinks, he said.
The studies examine both satellites that are early in their design phase as well as systems that are already on orbit, Withers said.
While direct attacks on satellites are on the table for consideration, the suggested methods generally focus on inexpensive measures like targeting a ground station that may not be well protected, jamming communications links or striking a key element that supplies a ground station, Holbrook said.
“It doesn’t have to be elegant,” Holbrook said. “It only has to work once. It doesn’t have to be a piece of equipment that sits on the shelf for five years and is ready to launch on a moment’s notice.”