Hyten’s Challenge: Think of a World Without Satellites

Only a few weeks before the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Gen. John E. Hyten, who heads U.S. Air Force Space Command, verbally painted a picture in black and white of a return to the combat of Midway and Bastogne, of Iwo Jima and Normandy.

Without satellites, “you go back to World War II. You go back to Industrial Era warfare,” Hyten told CBS’s “60 Minutes” newsmagazine.

He described warfare without satellites to gather and disseminate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. To detect missile launches and guide bombs. To transmit orders for battlefield movements, to move logistics, to do the hundreds and thousands of things that governments – and their commercial brethren – have invested trillions of dollars in satellites and infrastructure to do.

As unthinkable as a world without satellites is in these times, Hyten wanted the viewers of “60 Minutes” and, in April, attendees at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, to do just that: Think about it. Then join him and others in thinking about what can be done to prevent it.

The specter of an attack on satellites – either cyber or kinetic – is an increasing concern for Hyten and the rest of the military, as well as scientists and engineers in the commercial sector. Where once they were challenged to develop, advance and integrate signal and sensor technology in satellites, another “S” has been added to the mix: Security.

            “We need to get our heads around the fact that space might not always be a peaceful sanctuary,” Air Force Sec. Deborah Lee James told the Space Symposium. Space systems are facing “advanced demonstrated and evolving threats.”

China is testing anti-satellite devices at altitudes approaching the 22,000 miles at which 400-plus geosynchronous satellites orbit in what was once untouchable, blissful tranquility. Remember, too, the world’s most valuable constellation, the U.S. Global Positioning System, sits at an orbit of 11,000 miles.

In May 2014, Russia launched three communications satellites and also a fourth spacecraft that is demonstrating the capability to sidle up to other objects in space. Hyten has said in several speeches that satellites will need better defensive capabilities. The idea of armoring satellites is impractical, because of weight. Adding maneuverability is possible, but the extra fuel required could rob satellites of space for their designed capabilities.

Regardless, “processes will have to fundamentally change,” Hyten is saying at every opportunity.

Actually, they already are.

There is great concern about cyber attacks on computer-dependent satellites and their ground stations. It doesn’t take a missile launch to disrupt airline operations or cause economic havoc by shutting down a stock market or manipulate geolocation data. A capable hacker with a computer and access to the Internet can do the job.

While the military is dealing with its own defensive ideas – with the help of $5 billion over five years as reported in the 60 Minutes piece – commercial satellite companies are hardly standing idle.

Intelsat ‘s EpicNG satellites, due to launch in early 2016, include the latest advances in anti-jam capabilities. And, the U.S. Air Force’s protected tactical waveforms have been successfully tested on Intelsat satellites providing additional advances in protection once implemented.

Disaggregation is another way to protect the DoD’s communications networks, in which network requirements are divided among several satellite platforms to make certain that the failure of one does not impair the services of all.

In addition to cyber threats, the military is also hard at work evaluating the threat of kinetic satellite disruption. There are two critical things to keep in mind: (1) Space Situational Awareness to provide an early warning; and (2) taking directly from Karl von Clausewitz, who wrote of wars in black and white times — being prepared not for what an enemy is likely to do, but what that enemy is capable of doing.

“We need to be ready,” James said at the Space Symposium. “We must prepare for the potentiality of conflict that might extend from Earth one day into space. … We must not let potential adversaries ever deny us the use of space.”

It’s a challenge to military and commercial scientists and engineers to add the third “S” to the signal and sensors of today’s and tomorrow’s satellites.

Related Blog Posts Back to Blog ›

Privacy Preference Center

Close your account?

Your account will be closed and all data will be permanently deleted and cannot be recovered. Are you sure?

Are you sure?

By disagreeing you will no longer have access to our site and will be logged out.