Satellites are pivotal to modern warfare and the U.S. is heavily reliant on its satellites to achieve information supremacy on the battle field.
Dr. Jan Kallberg, Visiting Scientist at the Cyber Security Research and Educational Center, Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, The University of Texas at Dallas, researched the options an adversarial power has to degrade U.S. space assets with low risk for repercussions. His answer is that a covert cyber war in outer space will remove attribution to the attacker and create an opportunity to covertly harm space-borne capabilities.
These findings are published in the U.S. Air Force and Air University’s scientific journal “Strategic Studies Quarterly” Spring 2012 issue titled “Designer Satellite Collisions from Covert Cyber War”. http://www.au.af.mil/au/ssq/2012/spring/kallberg.pdf
Over a specific area of operation the U.S. military might is critically dependent on a few satellites that are heavily utilized. Any adversary confronted by U.S. military force has an interest in degrading U.S. space-borne capabilities as these satellites are keys to U.S. military operations. To date the perception of threats against satellites has been either anti-satellite missiles launch from Earth, debris clouds as an outfall of missile explosions, or beams originated from the Earth. All these attacks on space-borne capabilities will leave a trace and attribution to the attacker.
Dr. Kallberg noticed that there are 3,000 satellites which receive radio signals and respond to instruction. The vast majority of satellites are older with legacy technology on their onboard computers. There are objects in orbit with a combined weight of 5,500 metric tons. A vast number of these objects travel at speeds well above 5,000 meters a second.
“It became obvious that colliding large space objects already in space at hypervelocity speeds would trespass the risk of attribution for an attacker, and by using cyber warfare to hijack other satellites to ram the target satellite or destroy its functionality by creating a debris cloud in the satellite’s orbit, a state-actor could covertly destroy pivotal U.S. space assets”, says Dr. Jan Kallberg.
The impact of the cloud is best expressed with the velocity. Debris can travel at speeds eight times faster than a 5.56 mm high velocity M-16 bullet. Even small objects the size of a dime or a nickel create severe damage on a fragile and highly sophisticated target satellite when they hit at 7,000 meters a second.
For an enemy a direct kinetic attack might be inviting, but the political price is high. Using an anti-satellite missile is a grave act of war and can only reasonably be used if the perpetrator anticipates and accepts a wartime response. For a potential adversary, it can be far more advantageous to increase the amount of debris that clutters specific orbits, thus epitomizing the indirect attack. Increasing debris can be accomplished through actively adding debris to specific well-targeted orbits, systematic designer accidents, or collisions in space.
Dr. Kallberg concludes that outer space is likely a battle ground for future cyber conflicts. The solution Dr. Kallberg proposes in the published article is higher degree of resilience in the U.S. satellite fleet by adding more satellites, maintaining military spectrum to ensure safe communication, and utilizing active defense to probe vulnerabilities before these vulnerabilities are exploited by adversaries.
Link to downloadable article: "Designer Satellite Collisions from Covert Cyber War" published in the Spring issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly.
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