Space Force trying to protect its ‘soft underbelly’

U.S. Space Force 1LTs Brandon Wilkinson, (left) and Nicholas Stawinski (right), Military Satellite Communications (MILSATCOM) operators for the 4th Space Operations Squadron, observe their monitors at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, April 8, 2022. (U.S. Space Force Photo by Dennis Rogers)

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The U.S. military faces a variety of threats to its satellite systems, but the Space Force’s “soft underbelly” is cyber, a top official said Monday.

Cyberattacks could threaten on-orbit capabilities and the ground systems that support them, which are critical for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), communications, and positioning, navigation and timing. Making U.S. systems secure is a top priority, noted Lt Gen. Stephen Whiting, head of Space Operations Command (SpOC).

“These global networks that we have in Space Force and SpOC are truly not only global — meaning they wrap around the globe — but then they extend out to 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface into geosynchronous orbit. And that creates a lot of novel cyberattack surface … where bad actors might try to attack us in the cyber domain. So, we have to secure that because that’s our soft underbelly,” Whiting said during a Mitchell Institute event.

“That’s our first priority is to prepare those combat-ready, ISR-led, cybersecure space and combat support forces,” he added.

Advanced adversaries like Russia and China have tested anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles that could destroy U.S. spacecraft in orbit, “but they would prefer to take us on in cyber because it’s just a lower bar” to clear operationally, Whiting said.

Cyberattacks would also be a preferred method for less advanced adversaries such as North Korea because their other counter-space capabilities are lagging, he said.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a report last month on challenges to security in space. The study included cyber among a list of other threats to U.S. space systems such as ASAT missiles, directed energy weapons, electronic warfare and orbital systems.

“With sophisticated knowledge of satellite C2 [command and control] and data distribution networks, actors can use offensive cyberspace capabilities to enable a range of reversible to nonreversible effects against space systems, associated ground infrastructure, users, and the links connecting them,” the report said.

China’s People’s Liberation Army emphasizes offensive cyberspace capabilities as a major component of integrated warfare, the DIA noted.

The PLA could launch cyberattacks against other nations’ space-based assets and other command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) networks and commercial systems to establish “information dominance” in the early stages of a conflict, the report said.

China also uses cyberespionage to steal other countries’ space and counterspace technologies for its own benefit, according to DIA.

Meanwhile, Russian counterspace doctrine involves using cyber capabilities to target an adversary’s satellites and supporting infrastructure.

“Russia considers the information sphere, especially space-enabled information collection and transmission, to be strategically decisive and has taken steps to modernize its military’s information attack and defense organizations and capabilities,” the DIA report said.

It added: “Since at least 2010, the Russian military has placed a priority on the development of forces and capabilities, including cyberspace operations, for what it terms ‘information confrontation’ — a holistic concept for ensuring information superiority. The weaponization of information is a critical aspect of this strategy and is employed in times of peace, crisis, and war.”

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Cybersecurity, DIA, Lt. Gen. Whiting, satellites, Space Force, Space Operations Command
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