Threats to US National Security Interests In Space: Satellite Information Technology and Physical Security



     America’s reliance on space based technology has never been greater. Since the days of Alexander Graham Bell, the early days of the Discoverer Mission in 1956 (Kevin C Ruffner 2005), the creation of the National Aeronautics Space Administration in 1958 (Dick et al. 2007), and the National Reconnaissance Office in September of 1961 (Berkowitz 2011) the US has relied on this technology to further its national interest. The US Intelligence Community and Telecommunications industries have provided information dominance for the people of the United States and their allies. America’s second decade into the 21st Century has brought new strategic challenges which include orbital debris, space-based cyber-security, and also space-based physical security of the battlefield of space.

    Space debris has created problems for launch, recovery, and operations in space. In 2009 a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2251, collided with an Iridium Satellite, a US Communications satellite (Harwood 2009; Malik and Iannotta 2009). Space-based cyber-security has placed new challenges before American strategic interests. In 2014, following the Russian annexation of Crimea, 11 land-base GPS stations, located in Russia and purportedly used for continental drift calculations, were hacked by the Russians (Tillford 2014; Thomas Halleck 2014; Mamontov 2013). Physical security of our space-based technology has also come to prominence. In 2011, Dudi Cohen reported in two different sources that the Iranians had successfully blinded a US Spy satellite with a laser (Cohen 2011a; Cohen 2011b).

     Policy makers have an opportunity to explore these issues through hearings, with stakeholders in defence contractors, Space X, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as officials from the National Reconnaissance Office. Efforts to address these issues amongst the international community for policy holders would involve some aspects of the executive branch in creating frameworks and oversight by the US Congress to address these issues with our allies and to address any aspect of re-mediation and any appropriations.

Defining The Threat

     Since the development of the V2 rocket by Dr. Braun in Germany during World War II, the militarization of space evolved in a battle-space inclusive of the cold war rivals of Russia and the Untied States. This bipolar world created the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (“R-36O / SL-X-? FOBS” 2014), a slew of surveillance technologies (Aftergood 2011; Oder, Fitzpatrick, and Worthman 2011; Phelan 2013), and the Strategic Defense Initiative (Grabbe 1991; Reiss 1992). In the multi-polar 21st Century, the Space Foundation reports that over 52 nations have interests in Space based technologies. A 2010 report noted, “The global space economy reached $261.6 billion in government budgets and commercial revenue; almost 40 percent growth in the five years the Space Foundation has been tracking the space economy,” (Pulham 2010a; Pulham 2010b). Developing countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, Israel, are launching satellites with spy capabilities into orbit (“Nigeria Launches Spy Satellites Into Orbit” 2011; Bilal 2014; “Israel Launches ‘Ofek 10’ Spy Satellite” 2014). Scandal surrounds the death of a leading Iranian scientist who was working with Chinese officials to help their government gain a toe-hold in space-based surveillance capabilities with several satellites launched despite international sanctions (Dehghan and Kamali 2011; Joshua Davidovich 2012). South Africa currently copes with a scandal over a billion dollars spent in collaboration with Russia for a satellite that has not been delivered (David Maynier 2014; Wort 2014). The employment of this battle-space by many countries creates a crowded environment (James Clay Moltz 2014) and limits through competition the technological edges of duopolization that existed as US Space Agencies down-size and privatize (Moskowitz 2013; Dreier 2013; King 2013).

What is Satellite Technology Security and Why is it a Threat?

     Satellite technology infrastructure remains vulnerable to hackers in a fashion similar to computer based networks. Most communication satellites are signal repeaters. They receive a terrestrial based transmission and then re-broadcast it on a different band or frequency as programmed. A denial of service can be obtained by double illuminating a communications satellite. Using the legal ID for an up-link from the same or a different location a carrier signal can be aimed at a satellite and can wipe out communications services on the link. Also, while using a spectrum analyser free band-with can be ascertained and used to up-link information in the free space with a Trojan signal. If it doesn’t interfere with normal communications the probability of remaining unnoticed increases. Countries who wish to listen to the communications of these satellites can also use the information for network intelligence to understand how our networks are configured.

     In 2007 Tamil terrorists hijacked a US communications satellite (“Tamil Rebels Hijack US Satellite Signal” 2007). The rebel group broadcast its propaganda by hijacking the Intelsat Ltd Intelsat-12 satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the Indian Ocean back to the Indian subcontinent (Daly 2007). In 2006, Libyan nationals operating from 3 different sites in Libya, compromised a Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications, a contractor for Boeing International, satellite on L-band communications signals for more than six months. Their efforts jammed cellular communications against smugglers in Libya, their intended target, but communications in many places besides Libya (Selding 2007). In 2009, Brazilian ham radio operators discovered that several mothballed satellites deployed for the US Navy in the 1980’s were still operational and broadcast pirated signals into remote areas of Brazil. Since the Navy doesn’t use those satellites any longer it took a while to notice they were ill-used and even longer to collaborate with the Brazilian government to prosecute the signal pirates (“Space: US. Navy Satellites Hijacked” 2009). In 2010, a Spanish cyber-security researcher Leonardo Nve demonstrated how easy it was to spoof satellite network by impersonating another person on the network, by intercepting a domain naming request and sending back false information to someone on the network before a panel of black hat cyber-security professionals near Langley, Virgina (Nve 2010). Bloomberg News reported in 2011, that Chinese hackers caused Landsat-7 to have 12 minutes of interference in October of 2007 and July of 2008. The same story also stated Chinese hackers were able to interfere a Terra AM-1 satellite for two minutes in June of 2008 (Capaccio and Bliss 2011).

     These examples demonstrate weakness to external threats in the ways these tools are employed, their software, or their processes. The location of satellites makes their upgrade path difficult. The physical location also provides challenges to their physical security.

What is Satellite Physical Security and Why is it a Threat?

     Satellites circling the globe find themselves in a very crowded neighbourhood that adds significant cost to the bottom line of deploying them. Orbiting the world at 17,500 Miles per hour, are approximately 500,000 pieces of space junk approximately that are 0.5 inches or greater. The US Department of Defence tracks over 21,000 objects that are over 4 inches (Moskowitz 2010). In 2013 the Chinese conducted a successful missile based anti-satellite weapons system test against their decommissioned Fengyun 1C satellite (Shalal 2014) which was still in orbit. Debris from the destroyed satellite collided with a Russian satellite (Merryl Azriel 2013). In 2009 a US Iridium-33 Satellite was destroyed in a collision with a Russian Komos 2251 satellite (Malik and Iannotta 2009) while above the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia, Russia. Early in 2013, Equadorian space officials were nervous that their only satellite in orbit collided with debris from a Soviet Rocket had been terminated (Caselli 2013). Fox News Latino reported several months later that the satellite had begun broadcasting again and the mission could be salvaged (“Ecuador Receives South America Images, Recovers Lost Satellite Signal” 2014). This debris presents as a collision hazard to high value investments of countries and corporations.

     Costs to deploy a typical satellite over the past two decades have gone up while US launches have declined, (“Darpa Takes Aim At Slow Pace, High Cost Of US. Milspace” 2014). It costs approximately $50-$100 million dollars to launch a satellite into orbit (“The Cost of Building and Launching a Satellite” 2014). This doesn’t include the cost of licensing bandwidth or the cost of manufacturing the satellite technology to deploy.

     The physical threats to these objects from land-based technologies also continue to grow. The Russians in 2011 revived a cold-war weapon that employs lasers against Satellites in orbit (Johnson 2011). In 2000 the US asked Russia not to sell this technology to the Iranians (Miller 2000) but in 2011 an Iranian laser was able to blind a US spy satellite (Cohen 2011b). Similarly, the Chinese have deployed an anti-satellite laser purportedly against a US target (Francis Harris 2006).

Other Pertinent Issues: The Russian Engine

     Political challenges with Russia over Crimea and the Ukraine put missions from the National Reconnaissance Office at risk. Atlas V rockets put American spy technology in orbit have been powered by a dual chamber, dual nozzle Russian built, model RD-180. This engine is manufactured by NPO Energomash and performs perfectly even on a recent mission in May of 2014 (Evans 2012; Kremer 2014). Russian politicians have criticized the contractor for selling to the United States below cost (“Russia Accuses Atlas Rocket Engine Builder of Selling to United States Below Cost” 2011). Pentagon officials have stated while they have approximately 2 years of inventory on hand, they cannot replace the Russian engine (“Pentagon Says It Cannot Replace Imported Russian Rocket Engines” 2014; Butler 2014). The Russians in response to US sanctions over tensions in Ukraine halted delivery of this engine (Clark 2014).

Mitigation and Re-mediation

     Mitigation. Mitigation efforts are largely focused on limiting the amount of future space garbage and avoiding the existing space debris while targeting development on improved software security to limit the functionality of these networks. The United States since 1988 has implemented a policy to limit the amount of space debris. In 1995 the National Aeronautics Space Administration developed a set of guidelines to assist launches in a set of protocols to prevent the further creation of more debris (“NASA Technical Standard 8719.14” 1995). These standards have been adopted by other US space agencies (“US. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices” 1997). Additionally, US space agencies have elevated their situational space awareness to limit the amount of space-based collisions (“Orbital Debris Mitigation” 2014). Tracking the space junk has been difficult. US defence contractor, Lockheed-Martin has been awarded a $917 Million contract to establish a watchful eye over this junk-yard in what they are calling a ‘space fence’ (Shenanigan 2014). Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance keeps track of this with both the Russians and the US having programs. The US program has three sites in New Mexico, Hawaii and Diego Garcia. The US also maintains a radar based surveillance system that was initially managed by the Navy (“A Guide to Orbital Space Debris” 2010). This system is a hub of the global space surveillance network which includes sites near Jordan Lake, Ala., Lake Kickapoo, Texas, and Gila River, Ariz. Six receiver sites are located at Tattnall, Ga., Hawkinsville, Ga., Silver Lake, Miss., Red River, Ark., Elephant Butte, N.M., and San Diego, CA (Chatters and Crothers 2009). The US Air-force recently announced it was deploying surveillance satellites in space to not watch other countries on the ground but to keep an eye on satellites (Cheng 2014).

     Given the challenges associated with antiquated systems, to mitigate risks associated with existing satellite networks several things can be done to improve the qualitative aspects of these networks. Every dollar spent on security is a dollar limiting mission capability. Improving ground based security protocols where networks interface with the satellite can provide mitigation by harden targets through a prevention control model of: Limiting access control, defining user roles, using only encrypted communications, using software assurance and employing anti-virus technologies (Worden 2014). For military and government operators in the field, if connections are lost for mission-critical applications, out-of-band communications have traditionally allowed operators to access a terminal on a satellite communications system. This back door has traditionally had minimal security and the implementation of Secure Remote Management can improve troubleshooting and access. Secure Remote Management ensures network availability, even when the primary connection is down (Wilhelm 2008).

     Re-mediation. Boeing received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project grant to improve the launching capabilities of satellites and reduce costs. The Airborne Launch Assist Space Access or ALASA will fire lighter and smaller satellites into low-orbit from a jet fighter (Sampson 2014). The expectation is to reduce the current cost by 66% (Gruss 2014). The Swiss have presented an idea to deploy near-space garbage collection units which can launch and bring down trash from space in a safe manner rather than having these objects fall on highly populated areas if they fall out of orbit (Mohammadreza Madi 2012). Fuel costs for this option are inhibitive. In 2010, the US National Aeronautics Space Administration was tasked with the development of a trash collection program but has not presented with any usable technologies (Raloff 2011). The Independent, ran an article advocating the use of a powerful laser to target debris into an orbit that would take it out of space. Researchers from Australian National University have been given a $20 million grant and $40 million of private investment to set up a centre and fire the lasers (Winthall 2014).

     The US has several technologies that can be used against enemy satellites but due to treaty restrictions and those imposed by the US Congress are not currently employed in this process. When foreign satellites present a challenge to the security of the United States and its mission, anti-satellite technologies could be used to disable foreign assets. With some modifications the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System could be used to attack low-orbit satellites (Wright and Grego 2003). The Navy Theater-Wide Ageis LEAP system, now called Sea-Based Mid-course Defense, could also provide ship-launched anti-satellite capabilities with few modifications(Wright and Grego 2003). The Airborne Laser has also been employed as an anti-missile system but possesses anti-satellite technological implications (Wright and Grego 2003).

Legal Issues

     There are some current legal issues surrounding these risks as well as governing regulatory bodies that have responsibility over space based security. Some countries are a party to treaties governing conduct in space. Arguing to improve the security of our technology American firms concerned over the use of Russian technology in rockets used for critical defence programs Space X is suing the US Air-force over allowing a no-bid contract to goto a Russian contractor (“SpaceX Sues US Air Force, Citing Unfair Contractor Monopoly” 2014). This suit is because the US Air-force awarded Lockheed Martin and Boeing 36 launch contracts without a bidding process. A footnote in the suit claims the US Air-force scrapped a couple of launches in 2018 and 2019 for an ageing Global Positioning System that it said was ageing with 12 satellites currently classified as legacy (Rosen 2014b). The suit also claims an Air-Force official by the name of Correll would get a Vice President job with the consortium if he secured the contract (Rosen 2014a). Ultimately if the US Air-Force certifies Space-X to carry the payloads a bidding process can improve cost benefits to the taxpayers of the Untied States in an already challenged fiscal space environment.

     The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee governs many of the practices of 12 countries. This committee works collectively to govern the management of space junk. It makes its recommendations to the space agencies of the world to include mitigation guidelines.

     The United States is a party to the ratification of Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. This treaty states that countries that launch objects into space retain sovereignty over those items. This includes satellites that are put into space for communications or surveillance (“Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” 1967).


     The United States government employs more satellites to meet its communication and security needs than any other nation in the world. Ageing inventory remains difficult to upgrade and difficult to safely remove from orbit. With more nations entering the battle-space the US remains poised to collaborate with other space-agencies in reducing an increase in space debris. Furthermore, next generation cyber-weapons bring new frontiers to the battlefield. These challenges will continue to prompt policy makers to respond constructively to the threats present in space.


Howard L. Salter lives in Ocean Springs, Mississippi with his wife and four children. He enjoys recording music and writing and has a Bachelor’s of Science in Information Technology Management, a Mast of Arts in Intelligence Studies with a Focus on Antiterrorism and is working towards a PhD in Health Care Administration with a focus on economics and regulatory compliance.

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