Dragons, Snakes and the Dark Side — Space Council Hears About Satellite Vulnerabilities

Dragons, Snakes and the Dark Side — Space Council Hears About Satellite Vulnerabilities

Much of the public attention to the National Space Council meeting last week centered on Vice President Pence’s restatement of the goal to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars. A significant portion of the meeting, however, was devoted to national security space issues, especially the vulnerability of U.S. satellite systems, including their ground segments.

The final panel of the meeting featured three experts on national security space:  Michael Griffin, Adm. James Ellis (Ret), and Col. Pam Melroy (Ret.).  Although Griffin and Melroy are perhaps better known in civil than national security space circles, they also have experience in the national security sector. [A video of the entire meeting is available on YouTube.]

(L-R) Mike Griffin, James Ellis, and Pam Melroy speaking to the National Space Council, Oct. 5, 2017, Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, VA. Screengrab.

Ellis was commander of U.S. Strategic Command from 2002-2004, capping a career that began as a naval aviator and led to Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, and Commander in Chief, Allied Forces, Southern Europe.  He is currently a fellow at the Hoover Institution.  Griffin was NASA Administrator (2005-2009), and previously served as Deputy for Technology of the Strategic Defense Initiative Office (now the Missile Defense Agency) and as President and COO of In-Q-Tel, Inc., a CIA-created strategic investor in innovative technologies.  Most recently he was Chairman and CEO of Schafer Corp (recently acquired by Belcan).  Melroy was an Air Force test pilot before joining NASA, where she flew first as pilot and later as commander of space shuttle missions.  Most recently, she was Deputy Director, Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) before retiring earlier this year.

It is well known that U.S. national security is heavily dependent on space systems and they are threatened by antisatellite (ASAT) and other modes of attack.

Ellis’s point was that it is not just the satellites themselves that are vulnerable, but their ground segments.  Further, the threats are posed not only by nation states, but “non-state actors and individuals.”

“As with other of our national security challenges, a few dragons have been replaced by 100 snakes.”

Enhanced and focused space intelligence and space situational awareness (SSA) and advanced technologies are among the needs to protect the space infrastructure because “in preserving America’s national security space capabilities and that of our partners and allies around the world, failure is not an option.”

DNI Dan Coats at the National Space Council meeting, October 5, 2017, Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center. Screengrab.

Space Council member Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence (DNI), picked up on that theme.  While it was “wonderful” to hear from the preceding panels about the vision for civil and commercial space, it is sobering that “like other innovations that have occurred, the Internet and so forth, with all the blessings … and optimism it brings… it is a double-edged sword. … There is a dark side to this that forces us to be prepared.”  The Council must “ensure we achieve the dominance in space necessary to protect our people” and prevent adversaries from achieving dominance “that could do us wrong.”

Ellis also stressed that “we need to go faster” because threats are growing rapidly and Melroy agreed.  “The tempo of decision making is the problem,” she said, specifically the tempo of “space domain awareness” and “tactical intelligence to find, track, and engage targets and perform battle damage assessment.”

Ellis and Melroy championed the role the private sector can play.  Melroy stressed the need for more sensors to provide space domain awareness, but argued they do not need to be “as expensive as they are now,” that commercial sensors could provide that capability.  Ellis called for a “space neighborhood watch” with sensors on satellites to warn of approaching spacecraft like the “light that turns on when someone walks past your garage.”

Griffin’s message was that the “best chance to avoid conflict in space is to be so strong that no one wishes to take us on.”  He pointed out how commercial space assets are critical to national security space, with 80 percent of national security communications going through commercial systems.   Space systems also are critical to the nation’s economy.  The Global Positioning System (GPS) of positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites underpin the economy including ATM and other point-of-sale transactions.   While not one satellite might be lost,  Griffin asked “to what extent do we believe we’ve defended ourselves if the enemy can bring the economic system to a halt?”

Space Council member Tom Bossert, President Trump’s adviser on Homeland Security, honed in on GPS vulnerabilities.  Griffin stressed that the United States must make clear “what we will and will not accept. We need to be clear that an attack on space assets [like GPS] is an attack on the United States.”  However, he continued, the United States must also focus on developing  “GPS-independent” methods of providing PNT.  Melroy added that developing such methods can be useful for deep space navigation, as well, where GPS is not available

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at National Space Council meeting, Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center, October 5, 2017. Screengrab.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, another Space Council member, asked about the norms of behavior in space. “We’ve practiced to deconflict marine and air operations with adversaries,” but what is the equivalent for space?  Ellis, Griffin and Melroy all stressed the need for a rules-based regime in space, with clear and unambiguous U.S. policy about what is or is not acceptable behavior and the consequences of not following it, coupled with U.S. capabilities to defend its assets.

Ellis emphasized that allies are “essential in this effort,” pointing out that not all of the commercial satellites used by the U.S military are American.

Griffin added that “great nations understand the value of alliances” and there is no place where that is more true than in space.

This was the first meeting of the Space Council since President Trump reestablished the body in June.  H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser and another member of the Council, provided an overview of the “space strategic framework” the National Security Council is developing to address some of these issues.

His review and two others — one by NASA on space exploration and another by the Departments of Commerce and Transportation on commercial space regulations — are due in 45 days when, apparently, the Council will meet again.

Vice President Pence chairs the Council.  It is not clear how many of its meetings will be held in public, but this first one was held at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA near Dulles Airport and the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office.  Although it was not open to the general public, media and invited guests were in attendance and it was webcast.  How influential the Space Council becomes as policies and strategies give way to budget debates remains to be seen, but the fact that so many Cabinet secretaries and other high level government officials were in attendance is a tribute to the importance Pence attributes to questions about the future of the U.S. space program.


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