WASHINGTON — The head of the U.S. Space Force told lawmakers March 28 that the service is investing heavily in cybersecurity for satellite ground systems in response to increasing threats. 

The need for greater protection has intensified since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which saw satellite systems targeted in cyberattacks, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, said during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.

The Space Force’s $30 billion budget request for fiscal year 2024 includes $700 million to “enhance the cyber defense of our critical networks associated with space operations,” said Saltzman.

“There’s no question that space is going to be central to effective operations in the future,” he said. Russia’s electronic and cyber attacks in the early days of the invasion were a wakeup call, he said.

Saltzman did not provide details of what cybersecurity capabilities are being funded in the 2024 request. He said the Space Force is investing in software and hardware, but also in training for operators. 

Ground systems are the weak link

Upgrading cyber defenses has been a challenge for space programs due to larger problems the Pentagon has historically experienced with software developments, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said at the appropriations hearing.

A glaring example is the ground control system the Air Force started developing years ago for the Global Positioning System satellite constellation. Known as OCX, the system has been plagued by delays in part due to cybersecurity features that were inserted into the program and were not originally designed in the software.

‘We tend to have a problem with software programs in general across the Department of Defense’

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall

Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) noted that the most troubled Space Force programs happen to be ground systems. “Can you explain why the ground systems are so hard to deliver and what can we do about it?” he asked Kendall. 

“There’s a tendency in space programs to emphasize the satellite payload over the ground stations. And ground stations are almost always very software intensive,” Kendall said.

“And we tend to have a problem with software programs in general across the Department of Defense,” he added.

In the case of OCX, for example, “cybersecurity has gotten more stringent over time and that’s added a layer of complexity,” said Kendall. “If you don’t design for that upfront, and you come in and you try to overlay it later on as you’re going through the design, it’s much more difficult.”

Kendall said the head of Space Force acquisitions Frank Calvelli has been aware of this problem since taking office last year and has called for a new approach to the development of ground systems.

In a “space acquisition tenets” memo Calvelli circulated last fall, one of his directives is to “deliver ground before launch, and nsure ground systems are completed and ready for operations before launching a new capability.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...