To protect and maybe defend: NRO, SPACECOM ponder commercial satellite defense options


his long-exposure image shows a trail of a group of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay as seen from the countryside some 185 km north of Montevideo near Capilla del Sauce, Florida Department, on February 7, 2021. (Photo by Mariana SUAREZ / AFP) (Photo by MARIANA SUAREZ/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As commercial satellite systems are increasingly taking on national security missions for government and military customers, they’re also likely creeping up the target list for adversary nations. In anticipation, US Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office are mulling their responsibilities to safeguard their industry partners in orbit, according to government and industry officials.

In particular, SPACECOM and the NRO are actively “talking about” extending their year-old strategic “protect and defend” framework agreement on everything from acquisition to crisis procedures to commercial systems, according to Pete Muend, NRO’s head of commercial operations.

This includes “really considering from a government-wide perspective what are the limitations, importantly, and potential obligations in terms of considering commercial as part of that larger enterprise,” he told an Aug. 25 webinar sponsored by the the Intelligence & National Security Alliance (INSA). “How far does that work go, especially, for example, just thinking about it from a freedom of navigation standpoint, but up in space?”

Muend noted that for NRO there is the direct question of the spy satellite agency’s “formal obligations” under contracts that it has signed with a number of remote sensing companies for imagery. And while he didn’t specifically mention it, many of those companies at NRO’s urging have been providing imagery over Ukraine since the run-up to Russia’s invasion — imagery that the US government has used to help shape international public opinion as well as to directly assist Kyiv militarily.

An NRO spokesperson told Breaking Defense Tuesday that the agency’s “relationship with the commercial sector is vital. We know that a diversified architecture — made up of national and commercial satellites, large and small constellations, across multiple orbits — is essential to our national security. Maintaining our diversified architecture is a strategic priority and resiliency is critical to our operations.

“As today’s space environment becomes more contested, competitive, and congested than ever before, NRO is having discussions with our Intelligence Community and Department of Defense partners to determine how best to protect America’s assets in space, both government and commercial. We’re looking at strategies, identifying gaps, and clarifying roles and responsibilities. We look forward to sharing more down the road as these discussions progress,” the spokesperson added.

Likewise, a SPACECOM spokesperson said, “Commercial space systems are an essential component of U.S. critical infrastructure and vital to our national security. U.S. Space Command’s integration and cooperation with interagency and commercial space system stakeholders is critical to improve the security, resilience and cybersecurity of commercial space systems.”

Increasing commercial integration, the spokesperson added in an email Wednesday, has enabled “natural ongoing dialogue on how best to improve and protect our space architecture, and gain and maintain a technological and operational advantage.”

Commercial space firms will certainly be eager to hear the outcome of the discussions, even if experts and industry sources tell Breaking Defense there remains a question of how much, if anything, the government might or even could do when the time comes.

Fair Game In War

Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project, welcomed the SPACECOM-NRO conversation, noting that it is “a big deal,” especially since “Russia has conducted electronic and cyber counterspace attacks already” in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

There is widespread international agreement in the space law community that commercial satellite systems being used by militaries or for military purposes, including dual-use systems, are legal targets under the laws of armed conflict, within certain constraints. So, while Russia’s efforts to disrupt, for example, SpaceX’s Starlink network in Ukraine may not be out of bounds, it does represent a disturbing first (at least in the public domain).

“So, what level of protection or defense is a commercial provider entitled to? That’s the question,” said Andrew D’Uva, president of consultancy firm Providence Access. “And the answer is gonna be it depends, and it’s up to the government.”

National security leaders have grappled in the past with similar questions in the maritime and air domains where civil industry has been asked to directly serve military objectives, he said, for example, providing warnings about potential dangers from pirates along certain shipping routes.

But the issue of “protect and defend” is a bit more complicated in space, because as one former government official put it, there are multiple kinds of commercial providers and many of their satellites are becoming ever more entwined in day-to-day DoD operations.

“The U.S. commercial space enterprise gives us a competitive edge and adds to our national security, but what is the right balance of ensuring government protection in the freedom of operations? And how does that change when we’re talking not just about the safety of satellites on orbit, but their data links and ground stations? It’s definitely a lot to consider,” Johnson said.

Protect: Helping Industry Help Themselves

Still, D’Uva said, DoD has been making progress on working more closely with industry partners to at least help them help themselves.

“I think the US government has been walking down this path with commercial and civil in a variety of ways for many years now. It starts with the simple aspects of space situational awareness and sharing programs that they established to talk about debris, hazards to navigation, and those products, those conjunction data messages, have been available to anyone who asks for them for many years now.”

Indeed, for the moment at least, SPACECOM is responsible for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to commercial and foreign firms. It also has a variety of special agreements with companies, allies and partners under which threat information flows back and forth.

Defend: Who, When And With What?

But threat warnings aside, there remain large questions about what exactly SPACECOM, or any other combatant command for that matter, actually could and would do to defend commercial satellite systems in the face of attack, according to a number of industry and former government officials.

Critically, industry and former government officials said, it remains unclear whether DoD would use its own firepower to disable or destroy adversary counterspace systems on the ground or in space to protect commercial satellite systems. Industry officials say DoD and the IC have never made any such promises, much less told companies how it would be done.

In reality, a former Pentagon official explained, the US military does not make it a habit to actively try to defend other sorts of civilian infrastructure (think railroads or bridges) in war — with the very few exceptions of when it has nationalized assets, such as under the Air Force’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) or the Maritime Administration’s National Defense Reserve Fleet.

In addition, what if any offensive capabilities (read weapons) exist to take out any enemy space-based systems remains largely a mystery due to classification levels. (DoD admits to only one counterspace weapon, the Counter Communications System, for jamming enemy communications satellites.)

And if there are such weapons, they wouldn’t be able to actively defend the myriad commercial satellites contributing to military operations at any one time, Doug Loverro, former head of DoD space policy told Breaking Defense today.

DoD can help protect commercial birds via “technical assistance,” but “there is no physical way to defend a host of satellites from a space-borne threat. And any time you talk about commercial, you are talking about a host of satellites.”

In the case of ground- or space-launched anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, such as those tested by both Russia and China, experts say it is hard to imagine any kind of realistic defense because the timeframes from launch to impact are short. Thus, even if a satellite operator was warned immediately and actually had the capability to maneuver, there isn’t time to do so.

“What kind of technology is even available to do something about that? It’s physics,” said one industry source.

And even if SPACECOM does have some way to do so, perhaps of blinding an ASAT guidance system or hacking it so it goes off course, the source added, would DoD want to use that capability for the sake of a commercial satellite?

“If you’re going to use that capability, you might be revealing it to the adversary. And so, frankly, are you gonna do that to protect some sort of commercial asset that maybe is not that important? I don’t know,” the industry source said.

Another factor raising questions for industry is that the entire thrust of the Space Force and SPACECOM strategy of resilience is to have multiple assets to ensure critical capabilities remain available when any one system is lost.

“They seem to want to have that in many systems and choices as possible,” the industry source said. “Which, if that’s the case, would tend to make me think that they’re not interested in defending anyone in particular; that their defense is actually: ‘Oh, that one’s got blown up. OK.”

The INSA webinar was moderated by Breaking Defense’s Theresa Hitchens.

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