CAPE CANAVERAL — After an aborted launch Tues., Dec. 18, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully carried its payload into orbit Sun., Dec. 23. With the launch begins the installation of a new constellation of GPS satellites and a looming question over the entire enterprise: Can communications in space be secured by good satellite design alone?
“Launch is always a monumental event, and especially so since this is the first GPS satellite of its generation launched on SpaceX’s first national security space mission. As more GPS III satellites join the constellation, it will bring better service at a lower cost to a technology that is now fully woven into the fabric of any modern civilization,” Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center and Air Force program executive officer for space, said in a released statement.
“It keeps GPS the gold standard for positioning, navigation and timing information, giving assured access when and where it matters. This event was a capstone, but it doesn’t mean we’re done. We’re going to run a series of procedures for checkout and test to ensure everything on Vespucci functions as it was designed.”
The day the launch was aborted, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the president had signed an order to create U.S. Space Command, a sign that maybe design alone is insufficient for stability in orbit. The memorandum assigns to Space Command, among other responsibilities, “the space‑related responsibilities previously assigned to the Commander, United States Strategic Command.”
A Space Command previously existed from 1985 through 2002, when it was reorganized and its responsibilities were folded into Strategic Command. Worth noting, too, is that this is a distinct move from the possible creation of a distinct Space Force as an independent branch.
In the meantime, as the administration debates how and if it wants to transfer from a subtle to an explicit militarization of space, the satellites are going into orbit. GPS III satellites, made by Lockheed Martin, cost $577 million apiece for the first 10. The program’s costs continue to rise, so that unit price may inch upward.
Each satellite is over half-a-billion dollars of vital asset, as expense as a half-dozen F-35As. When the Air Force talks about the alternatives it’s developing to GPS constellations, the conversation is often about finding ways to achieve the same effect without the singularly large expensive vulnerable targets. If there is a Plan B for GPS, it might be in clouds of smaller satellites. But GPS III remains Plan A and, for Plan A to work, it has to survive in an increasingly hostile orbit.
Here is the threat environment faced by satellites: The United States and China have both destroyed deorbiting satellites of their own with missiles and other nations are developing missiles that might be capable of shooting down satellites. To the extent that a vulnerability to missiles is managed, it is managed by deterrence, the threat of retaliation and the uncontrolled danger that debris in orbit poses to all satellites.
Yet it’s the nonkinetic attacks that remain the likely vulnerability and pathway into disrupting the functions of a satellite network. To that end, Lockheed Martin and the Air Force boast that the GPS III satellite has up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities, a metric that reveals the threat environment far more than it describes the measures taken against it. Reached for comment, Lockheed Martin decline to comment on what, exactly, was eight-times improved.
Adversaries who want to degrade the usefulness of GPS can do so in a variety of ways, and most of them involve obscuring or interfering with the signal. Nations such as Iran and North Korea, as well as expected players China and Russia, have electronic warfare capabilities that can interfere with the signals from commercial satellites, though their capability against existing and future military satellites is unknown. Cyber means of satellite interference were demonstrated by the Tamil Tigers in 2007, and other nonstate actors may also be able to interfere in a similar way, though one hopes cybersecurity for satellites has improved in the decade since. Spoofing signals can also fool GPS receivers into following false and deliberately malicious coordinates.
What GPS III’s anti-jamming capabilities acknowledge is that electronic warfare is hardly a terrestrial-only affair. The moves toward a Space Force, a unified Space Command and, even more ominously, an Air Force that declares space a “war-fighting domain” acknowledge the vulnerability of satellites to a variety of means of interference, disruption or destruction poses real security risks to the military narrowly and the functioning of the modern world broadly.
What is yet to be determined is if space, like cyber before it, will remain primarily a domain of espionage, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare, with the satellites regarded as physically inviolate nodes. The alternative is the space becomes a domain for kinetic war fighting, with massive, powerful, jamming resistant satellites a target for destructive missiles or other physical means. However it plays out, from the unified Space Command to the launch of GPS III, 2018 marks a change in how the United States views the role of the military in space.
What remains to be seen is if the change is durable and how the rest of the world adapts.