Information Assurance Under Attack – How Commercial Space Can Help

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence has called cybercrime the number one security threat this country faces, even over terrorism, espionage or weapons of mass destruction. These threats demand that DoD become more nimble in response. As DoD’s CIO Terry Halvorsen recently told reporters: “I think the big difference in cyber that we’re having to react to is it moves faster than any other warfare.”

This dangerous new reality calls for a broader understanding of Information Assurance (IA). Anything that threatens the continuous connectivity of space-based government communication is a threat to IA, and the country needs to start being as innovative as our adversaries to better defend end points and operational centers.

In addition, the new budget reality means that the DoD needs to find more effective, yet less costly ways of securing their networks. Commercializing their flight and ground operations is the best way to save money while upgrading to the latest technologies available in this arena with equivalent and in some cases better security.

Stated plainly, the DoD can stop flying their own satellites without compromising on security. The core mission is not the infrastructure, it’s the data and communications that keep forces safe and objectives met. Commercial operators can perform the tracking, telemetry and command (TT&C) for government satellite networks, freeing up uniformed personnel to focus on their critical missions.

Defense networks would be completely segmented from any other network, increasing security. Expert operators could manage the consoles 24/7, releasing commands from an endless cycle of training and removing network management from political tangles. Increased automation and constant monitoring reduces the chance for human error without sacrificing any oversight. These processes are well proven and ready to be transferred to DoD satellite networks.

This is far from a novel concept. The DoD is well down the road of determining how to turn over the operation of both the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) and the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system to the commercial industry. Here’s a quote from an Air Force report in 2014, via Space News:

In the long term, the Air Force intends to leverage satellite control services available through industry,” the Air Force said in its report, titled “Satellite Control Modernization Plan.” “Initial planning is currently underway, via the AFSCN Commercial Provisioning Assessment, to determine cost savings associated with off-loading some AFSCN contacts.”

General John Hyten, Commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, is a strong supporter of this approach. According to a memorandum dated July 29th sent by him to senior subordinates to senior subordinates, Gen. Hyten wants to start using commercial capacity immediately, and eventually wants commercial networks to be a fully redundant backup for AFSCN to ensure continuous connectivity.

He also wants to outsource routine command and control of the (WGS). Here’s what Gen. Hyten says in the memo:

WGS offers an immediate opportunity to leverage commercial operations of the satellite constellations while maintaining uniformed execution of mission payloads. As previously directed, we should move WGS satellite bus operations to commercial operators performing satellite control (possibly from commercial facilities and with the commercial satellite control network), as soon as possible within contract constraints.”

Commercial support for WGS could begin as soon as 2016. David Madden, former executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, laid out that potential timeline for a transfer in a recent Space News article:

I’m hoping 2016 is going to be the year we finally take the command and control for WGS and move it over to a commercial service,” Madden said.

It’s past time for a deeper level of government and commercial collaboration in space. For the first time, space has become a contested theater of operations. Our nation must be innovative and nimble in response to new challenges and new adversaries.

That response will be stronger and our space communications more secure when the military outsources operation of satellite infrastructure to proven commercial partners. As has been the case for the past 25 years, we’re here to serve those that defend our country.

A version of this piece was originally published by SIGNAL Online on December 30, 2015. Reprinted here with permission.

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