Defending military space assets is a national security imperative / Andriy Onufriyenko

Paul Maguire, CEO of Knowmadics, goes over what today's space security landscape looks like for the government and where the priorities are likely to drive tomorrow's.

Space, the Current Frontier

The United States military has become increasingly reliant on observations from space assets as well as moving data through satellites. Satellites that operate in a low Earth orbit (LEO) and medium Earth orbit (MEO) are of particular importance and are particularly vulnerable to attack.

For example, with the widespread integration of Global Positioning Systems into smartphones, vehicles, and various technologies, the military uses GPS on a daily basis for navigation, location-based services, tracking and more. How difficult would military navigation requirements be without reliable access to constellations that support GPS?

As more military operations rely on space, U.S. peer and near-peer adversaries spend a lot of time and effort trying to degrade spacecraft system performance and corrupt spacecraft mission output. Their goal is to reduce the use of and trust in the data and capabilities of space-based resources and systems that are increasingly essential to our national security. A basic attack might be an adversary jamming (putting “energy” onto) a satellite in orbit to interfere with its broadcast.

More sophisticated adversaries, who also have assets in space, might try using these assets along with terrestrial systems to jam or intercept signals to and from ground stations. Extremely sophisticated adversaries can attempt to inject malicious firmware or data to alter a satellite’s performance and reliability, or they may attempt to penetrate the ground support infrastructure(s) used to maintain and support satellites on orbit.

GPS has become so essential to military operations that the more the Ukrainians rely on GPS, the more the Russians try to jam GPS—and the more the Ukrainians target the jammers. In the 21 months since Russia widened its war on Ukraine, Kyiv's forces have destroyed at least four dozen Russian jamming systems, each of which might cost tens of millions of dollars.

Current observational capabilities make it challenging to detect attacks and malware used against space infrastructure. To ensure the security and reliability of satellites, operators have increasingly been forced to adopt an "assumed breach" mentality, assuming a security breach and emphasizing continuous monitoring and mitigation, to operate in an evolving threat landscape.

Satellite Advances Change the Equation

Military space efforts have pivoted over the last several years toward lower-cost, shorter-lifespan satellite platforms. As of September 2022, there were 5,000 satellites in LEO alone. Many of those are military, weather, communications and observational satellites. As their number increases, so does the threat to those satellites from malicious actors.

Many small sats (cubesats and microsats) share components and design characteristics, and were launched by the same launch providers. This proliferation was made possible by several innovative developments.

In the last decade, advances in shared satellite designs and reusable rocket technology significantly cut space lift costs, leading to a 90% decrease in launch expenses per pound and boosting competitiveness in the space sector. Shared components for small satellites enhance cost-effectiveness and interoperability but introduce potential supply chain vulnerabilities.

Cloud-based technologies, like Amazon Web Service's Ground Station and Microsoft's Azure Orbital, facilitate virtual satellite ground segments, ensuring flexible, scalable and cost-effective satellite operations. However, this shift raises security concerns, potentially providing unauthorized access to satellites by compromising the ground segments and networks.

Overall, these advances reduce the cost of designing, launching, and operating space platforms, allowing faster replacement and incorporating state-of-the-art improvements. However, the shift also removes barriers to entry for adversaries to take action.

Increase Our Space Situational Awareness

Thousands of LEO and MEO satellites are now deployed in orbit, with thousands more coming. Their prevalence increases US intelligence gathering, communications navigation and more. But the vulnerability of these new space assets accelerates the urgency to bolster our resilience in space, beyond creating proliferated satellite constellations.

The U.S. Government should consider adopting a new approach to ensure space systems resilience (including the essential ground segments). This priority was even recently highlighted by John F. Plumb, assistant defense secretary for space policy.

A critical step toward achieving that objective is to maintain and/or enhance space situational awareness. That SSA can be used to assess the “trustworthiness” of space assets — from constellations down to individual electronics and components that comprise satellite payloads and buses.

Employ a Holistic Technology Approach to Protecting Space

There are three key available technologies that should be considered for achieving those defensive ends.

Adaptive AI techniques are for use in continuous monitoring of low-level satellite bus components, detecting anomalies in performance, signals and operations. This approach could enable operators to dynamically score a satellite’s operational reliability.

Synthetic data and software simulations help generate a comprehensive AI training data corpus, facilitating the training, tuning and testing of AI models for enhanced decision-making in satellite operations.

For advanced visualizations, develop a modular human-machine interface for space operators and stakeholders, integrating principles from cognitive systems engineering, ecological interface design, and information visualization to allow a larger number of people to understand space operations and impacts to them. Incorporate advanced features like data layering, augmented reality and mixed reality to enhance space situational awareness so that more space operators can understand the dynamic space environment and threats to its smooth and orderly operations.

Effectively enhancing SSA through technology-based mechanisms will empower the Defense Department. This ensures the reliable dependence on space-based systems, serving as a primary method to counter peer or near-peer adversary actions.

If left unaddressed or unmonitored, these actions have the very real potential to degrade our critical space capabilities.

Paul Maguire is the CEO of Knowmadics