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Antisatellite Weapons Pose Major Cyberthreat

Both technical and human solutions must be at the ready before a space attack.

While infocentric nations and military forces focus on the threat to their systems from malware-wielding cyber attackers, a significant danger to cyberspace may come from outer space in the form of kinetic weapons that attack vital satellites. A great number of the tactical and strategic military systems that all major, and many minor, powers use 24 hours a day rely on satellites for vital input data. Also, nearly all satellites have dual civilian and military modes, and all nations and businesses would be impacted by any loss of the vital satellites. Even developing nations as well as major powers could cripple an opponent’s military and economic structures by using antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities, possibly as a devastating first strike.

Secret think tank papers or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) proposals would not be at the operator’s shoulder if navigation, communication or reconnaissance satellites are destroyed. U.S. operators and joint warfare exercises need to train in emergency procedures before the loss of these system-reliant capabilities in a pre-emptive attack.

The defense industry and military forces need to assess what they can do to continue engagement without satellites. First and foremost are possible workarounds or backups that could mitigate the loss of satellites. There probably are black programs in these areas, but absent those, preparedness by operators if satellites are lost is essential. Users have to train as they would fight under these conditions. The nation that makes the first strike has the advantage, and it can develop alternative operations—if any—before the unsuspecting enemy can react.

Target satellites fall into three basic categories. First are navigation satellites, which can be global or regional. The only operational global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) are the United States’ NAVSTAR GPS and Russia’s GLONASS. China’s regional BeiDou navigation satellites will be expanded into a global Compass GNSS by 2020, as will the European Union Galileo regional system, which launched its first operational satellite in August 2014. The United States is considering having dual GPS M-code and Galileo Public Regulated Service (PRS) receivers for backup. France, India and Japan also are developing regional navigation satellite systems.

Communication satellites are another prime target. They initially were in low Earth orbit (LEO) below 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) and later moved to medium Earth orbit (MEO) (1,200-22,000 miles, or 2,000-36,000 kilometers). The Iridium 66 satellite constellation is in LEO. The Russian Molniya series of communications satellites have a unique elliptical orbit that is low in the southern swing but in high Earth orbit (HEO) (above 22,000 miles) in the north above Russia for maximum use time. They have been HEO for coverage, but lately they are moving to MEO with smaller satellites and more launchers. Many of these are in fixed areas of coverage in geosynchronous orbits optimally positioned above the equator. MEO satellites include GPS navigation satellites at 20,000 kilometers, which need at least four GPS signals for accurate use.

Third are the reconnaissance and tactical targeting missions done by LEO satellites. Vulnerable to many types of ASAT weapons, these even have been intercepted by surface-to-air missiles in naval ballistic missile defense (BMD) tests.

One of the first ASAT programs was formed by the United States in 1959, when a 1,100-mile range Altair missile, mounted atop a Sergeant missile, conducted a mock attack on an Explorer satellite at 156 miles altitude. In May 1962, shrapnel from a close-intercept ASAT launched from Kwajalein was successful. Two months later, a nuclear warhead electromagnetic pulse (EMP) ASAT destroyed other “nontarget” satellites. After nuclear EMP satellite damage tests in the early 1960s, the ASAT program 437, based on Thor missiles, became operational in 1975. ASAT research was low priority until 1982, when news of Soviet ASAT tests was revealed. Again, the United States used the Altair upper stage, which an F-15 launched on an AGM-69 short-range attack missile, designated ASM-135 ASAT in January 1984. After a successful interception in 1986, the program was cancelled in 1988. In 2008, following a Chinese ASAT test the previous year, an SM-3 Standard Missile launched from a U.S. Aegis cruiser destroyed a U.S. spy satellite, USA-193, in a 133-mile-altitude decaying orbit. Directed energy weapons (DEW) and particle-beam weapons, such as the railgun at the Navy’s Dahlgren Laboratory, may be the next-generation ASAT technologies.

The Soviet Union’s first development decision was in April 1960, which led to the UR-200 rocket that included a killer satellite among its payloads. Delays in the UR-200 program resulted in mounting the killer satellite on an R-36 rocket in 1964. After 21 test launches spanning six years versus a special target craft that recorded shrapnel hits, the R-36 ASAT was operational in 1979. The Soviets experimented with ground-based lasers and beam weapons from the 1970s to the 1980s until forced to stop because of technology and funding problems. Russia mounted ASAT missiles on some MiG-31s in the 1980s, copying earlier U.S. F-15 ASAT ASM tests. After the fall of the Soviet Union, GLONASS was crippled with only partial capability because of disrepair until the new Russian government fully restored it by 2011. The Soviets experimented with Salyut/Almaz space stations armed with autocannons to destroy approaching satellites in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the Soviets developed the Polyus orbital weapons platform designed to be equipped with nuclear space mines, a recoilless cannon and a chemical laser. It failed to reach orbit in its only test launch in 1987.

China’s first ASAT test was in January 2007, when an obsolete Fengyun 1C weather satellite was destroyed by a Long March 1C rocket that collided with the satellite. In 2011, some maneuvering satellites were suspected of being part of an ASAT test. China is limited to northern latitude satellite or ASAT launches, but that drawback is being rectified by recent construction on southern Hainan Island for a geosynchronous equator launch site. During July 2013, China used Long March 4C rockets to launch three satellites with unusual maneuvers, one having extension arms to contact target satellites. Another recent Chinese ASAT test was in May 2013, when an ASAT based upon a new Kuaizhou rocket was launched from the Xichang launch site. China could be seeking an asynchronous advantage by causing maximum damage to the West with much less impact on its less sophisticated systems with minimal noncontinental links. A 2014 U.S. government report stated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had successfully jammed GPS signals. The Russian company Aviaconversiya has been marketing satellite jamming systems with a 200-kilometer range to Middle Eastern nations since 1999. Ironically, the United States recently destroyed Iraqi GPS jammers with GPS weapons.

Future leading candidate ASAT nations are Israel and India. With Israel, development of the Arrow 3, or Hetz 3, could supply the necessary tool to provide ASAT capability if needed. India’s successful test of a new Agni-V missile in May 2012 triggered speculation of ASAT-type capabilities in that rocket at 2,000-kilometer LEO or higher geosynchronous orbits in the next few years.

With all these nations threatening to remove orbital assets, countries must consider the effects of warfighting without satellite capabilities. Some solutions are technical, while others are human-oriented. Navigation satellite input data is coded into the requirements for many combat systems. As code currently is written, the lack of GPS data could greatly degrade or stop the engagement process in some combat systems. It might be possible for some system code to allow manual inputs by the operator, if selected. An obvious recommendation would be to have a patch that would not stop the computation if satellite data is suddenly lost, so that a launch could be continued when ordered by the operator.

Inertial navigation systems (INS) used on platforms have the advantage of updating their position and speed without external references by revising the initial position provided by an operator with internal motion sensors. These include gyroscopes, accelerometers and motion-sensing devices. Because of small errors of the measurement devices that increase over time—termed integration drift—INS usually supplements more accurate external systems, such as GPS. Thus, INS is the initial redundancy if GPS is lost. In June 2014, DARPA briefed industry on two possible methods to navigate without GPS. They were Spatial, Temporal and Orientation Information in Contested (STOIC) environments and All Source Positioning and Navigation (ASPN) to develop positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) technology. This is the type of thinking that is needed to have a chance to continue military operations without GPS.

About a dozen years ago, most seagoing vessels had navigation consisting of Sperry SRP-2000, Raytheon S-band and two X-band radars, GPS and NAVSAT (Transit) satellites, Omega VLF and Loran-C, not counting charts, star fixes and other traditional tools. The U.S. government eliminated Omega VLF, Transit and Loran-C. These possible navigation alternatives to GPS are gone. Dead reckoning technology enhancements, such as ring laser gyroscopes, help accuracy amid longer time between fixes. In past conflicts, navy warships conducted navigation and combat engagements with analog dead reckoning tracers (DRTs) and grease pencil status boards. These have been replaced with computer-aided DRT (CADRT) relying on GPS inputs to function. Operators should be trained to switch to alternate navigation sources to continue operations. Modern warship command and control systems such as Aegis have navigation sensor integration systems that are programmed to change automatically from one sensor to an alternate if one is lost in the auto mode. Inputs include INS, altitude or bottom depth and pitlog, in addition to GPS. Good systems allow the operator to manually choose the best alternate, which would occur if GPS were lost, for example.

Plans to eliminate U-2 reconnaissance aircraft should be reconsidered, because if reconnaissance satellites were destroyed, the U-2 could provide a backup reconnaissance capability that it has demonstrated successfully for decades. If a communications satellite link is lost, other frequency band communication such as HF to SHF bands should be attempted as alternatives. To avoid the operator trying to figure out which redundant communication equipment possibly could augment the lost communications satellite, a poster should be available with the best or worst choices as determined by senior communication staffs. Planning can enable ready availability of such plans when they suddenly and unexpectedly are needed.

The United States also could have additional GPS-capable satellites that send no signals to reveal their capabilities to the enemy. When other active GPS satellites are destroyed, these sleeper satellites could be activated by ground controllers to replace destroyed satellites. Hardening satellites to counter jamming, radiation and other threats is an obvious ongoing design objective.

In the same realm as redundant replacement navigation systems for our forces, equal attention should be paid to elimination of alternate Chinese navy navigation aids such as coastal LORAN-A, chains of differential GPS (DGPS) buoys and VLF stations from Manchuria down to Hainan and the South China Sea. Similarly, careful electronics intelligence (ELINT) and intelligence monitoring detecting unusual enemy communication or navigation patterns, and training as if its own assets were destroyed, could be a clue that China is planning a pre-emptive ASAT attack. In its advertisement literature, the newest versions of Chinese antiship missiles have replaced GPS with China’s BeiDou satellite navigation.

Although ASAT threats could have a worldwide effect on military and civilian commerce, some likely scenarios would be limited to one geographic area, such as the western Pacific and the South China Sea. This could provide China with an advantage over the United States by having the target satellites above its airspace. If land-launched ASAT rockets are the vehicles as in the Chinese April 2014 tests, that could be the case; but higher-technology U.S. ASAT lasers on ships would put the United States on more than equal footing with unlimited ASAT beams versus single-shot Chinese rockets. Of course, China also is developing lethal lasers. Politically, it may not be possible to keep ASAT destruction limited to only one geographic area, and escalation to higher level warfare would be hard to avoid.

One obvious complication is that nearly all GPS-type satellites designed by different nations or organizations share the GPS frequencies and commercial capabilities that are in orbit. The only military difference is the higher-resolution features supposedly not available to most other nations. Open sources say this adds up to a 20-meter commercial circular error probability (CEP) versus a 10-meter military CEP. All of these satellites might have to be destroyed in addition to the opponents’ assets to deny them navigation information for their weapon systems and platforms. This raises the issue of how U.S. forces would be able to utilize allied nation GPS-type navigation or communication satellites if U.S. assets are destroyed. The enemy may not want to destroy neutral-nation satellites to avoid having them as adversaries. Also, they may want to use them if their own navigation satellites are destroyed. Examples adjacent to China would be the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) seven-satellite network to be completed this year or the Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) development system that launched in 2010.