By Ralph Thiele

… thousands

Satellites are a critical infrastructure. They enable television, internet, telecommunications, energy, trade, and financial networks to function. As access to space gets cheaper, the commercial sector continues to grow its presence in space.

For fifty years, space innovation meant scaling Apollo-era technologies into ever larger, more durable satellites parked above their terrestrial clients in geosynchronous orbit. Exotic space-ready parts, militarised defences and layered redundancies became multi-billion-dollar systems designed to last forty years or more beyond their conceptions. Only a few organisations with thousands of aerospace engineers could participate. Space was reserved for major corporations, in turn dependent on government and military bodies.

Image courtesy of StrategyInternational.org.

This scenario has changed radically. Satellites are no longer the exclusive domain of rival superpowers, but rather a business opportunity based on falling technology costs. As access to space gets cheaper, the commercial sector continues to grow its presence there. Satellites are becoming mass-produced devices. Commercial space companies are fielding hundreds of small, cheap satellites. Companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are building cheaper, reusable rockets to add as many as 100 new satellites with every launch. Soon, there will be thousands of such satellites, providing eyes and ears over the entire world to include low earth orbit nano-satellites for navigation and communications, surveillance and reconnaissance, intelligence and missile warning.

In 2018, there were 114 government and private space launches worldwide, the first time in three decades that the number exceeded 100. The United States had 31 launches – including a record number of commercial launches – and China had 39. More than 80 countries have entered the global space industry. These countries have realised that space is a strategic industry that creates a highly technical workforce, triggering spinoff technologies and economic growth. Seventy-five percent of space industry revenues are commercial.[1]

… no fence in space

Serious threats to space infrastructure are a relatively new phenomenon. For a long time, space used to be an ecosystem of its own. As more countries and commercial firms have begun participating in satellite construction, space launch, space exploration, and so forth, new risks and threats have also emerged for space-enabled services.

An important element of the debate concerns access: it has to be recognised that there is no fence in space. The unhindered access to – and freedom to operate in – space is of vital importance to nations and international organisations, such as NATO and the European Union.[2] Navigation and weather monitoring, communications and financial networks, military and intelligence systems – all of these and more have components in the space domain. Military Command and Control use space-based systems coupled with meshed networks systems to support deployed operations and allow data exchange in austere environments wherein units will join ad hoc networks built upon the devices belonging to friendly forces. Mobile communication devices share intelligence, translate languages, provide navigation, targeting data and blue force position, while maintaining visual contact with the surrounding environment.

Given that there are few distributed technological systems that do not rely on satellites for some vital piece of their functionality, the importance of space assets and of retaining the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the information that they carry cannot be overstated. Opponents understand this well. Space has become their centre of gravity for downgrading Western C4I. China for example has adopted the “if you can’t beat them, hack them” strategy for space. Denying the use of space capabilities will be very high in the next conflicts’ Electronic Orders of Battle.

An artist’s conception of GPS III. Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

… vulnerable assets

Satellites are vulnerable to a wide array of intentional and unintentional threats. Several nations have learned how to attack the global commons of space.[3] To this end, Florence Parly, French Minister of Defence, reported recently: “… we know very well that … very large space powers deploy intriguing objects in orbit, experiment with potentially offensive abilities, conduct manoeuvres that leave little doubt about their aggressive vocation.” [4]

Attacks against satellites can be very targeted, but they can also have wide-ranging implications for nearly all militaries and the global economy. Disrupting global navigation satellite systems (GPS, GALILEO, GLONASS, BEIDOU) as a means of degrading military targeting and navigation systems will have considerable repercussions for other militaries that leverage these systems. There may also be potential implications for civilian and commercial applications of these systems, for example car or cell-phone navigation systems.

Similarly, the destruction of a satellite in space will create space–debris that could threaten a much broader spectrum of space architecture, as successful direct ascent anti-satellite missile tests by China in 2007 and India in 2019 have both shown. With the prospect of large constellations consisting of thousands of satellites the challenge of space congestion will augment. This is why it is indispensable that Space Situational Awareness (SSA) comes up with detailed knowledge of any given space object’s location, and ensures the ability to track and predict its future location, incorporating the understanding of an actor’s intent for their spacecraft.

The spectrum of threats is impressive:

  • Cyberspace – actors can use offensive cyberspace capabilities to enable a range of effects against space systems, associated ground infrastructure, users, and the links connecting them.
  • Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) – include lasers, high-power microwaves, and other types of radiofrequency weapons. It can be difficult to attribute the origin of a DEW attack, depending on the type.
  • Electronic Warfare (EW) – includes using jamming and spoofing techniques to control the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • Antisatellite (ASAT) missiles – designed to destroy satellites without placing the weapon system or any of its components into orbit.
  • Orbital or space-based systems are satellites which deliver temporary or permanent effects against other spacecraft. Some of these systems, such as robotic technology for satellite servicing and repair and debris removal, have peaceful uses but can also be used for military purposes.

Of particular concern is the vulnerability of military, commercial, and dual-use space infrastructure that has become critical not just to military C4I capabilities, but also civilian and commercial communications that rely on space-based assets. Development and deployment in the last decade of a growing range of counter-space capabilities is shaping the need for new concepts and capabilities to ensure the resilience of space-based communications.

The NIP-10 radio telescope TNA-400 near Simferopol in Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 using hybrid warfare tactics. Photograph courtesy of weapons.com

In August 2019, French Minister of Defence Florence Parly announced plans to develop and deploy an active defence system for France’s space assets and infrastructure to include satellites equipped with cameras, lasers and “maybe even guns” by 2030. The announcement follows closely French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement during Bastille Day celebrations in July 2019 of a new “Space Command” that improves upon the French “Joint Space Command” concept established in 2010.[5] Together, these announcements offer valuable insight into the military and security competition unfolding in space.

Space will likely emerge as its own domain of manoeuvre warfare. Spacecraft will be able to manoeuvre and fight, and the first orbital weapons could soon enter the battlefield. So far, the near impossibility of refuelling spacecraft has largely limited them to orbiting the earth. But as it becomes feasible to not just refuel spacecraft mid-flight but also build and service satellites in space, process data in orbit, and capture resources and energy in space for use in space, space operations will become less dependent on earth.

The space environment is particularly vulnerable to hybrid threats, such as spying or service interruption. Upcoming challenges cross-cut space and cyber domains. Actors can use offensive cyberspace capabilities as other hybrid means to enable a range of reversible to non-reversible effects against space systems. There are plenty of access points which can be attacked – including the antennae on the satellites, the ground stations, and the earth-based user terminals, ranging from physical vulnerabilities of a ground site to electronic warfare (EW) disrupting the connection between the space segment and the operator. Attacks include stealing data, sending fake or corrupt data, and a complete shutdown of all the satellite’s operations. It is increasingly understood that space assets have been vulnerable to hybrid attacks for far too long.

Part Two of this essay will be published tomorrow.


Bio: Colonel (Ret`d) Ralph Thiele is President of EuroDéfense-Germany, Chairman of the Berlin based Political-Military Society and Managing Director of StratByrd Consulting, Germany.  Thiele brings 25 years’ experience in top national and international political-military leadership and policy assignments. In his honorary and business functions he advices on Defence Innovation and Disruptive Technologies in times of digital transformation. He has published numerous books and articles and is lecturing on defence and security issues on global scale.


[1] Wilbur Ross. Remarks at the Sixth National Space Council Meeting. U.S. Department of Commerce. Washington, Tuesday, August 20, 2019. https://www.commerce.gov/news/speeches/2019/08/remarks-us-commerce-secretary-wilbur-l-ross-sixth-national-space-council

[2] EDA. 2018 CDP Revision. The EU Capability Development Priorities. Brussels. Pg. 9. https://www.eda.europa.eu/docs/default-source/eda-publications/eda-brochure-cdp

[3] EDA. 2018 CDP Revision. The EU Capability Development Priorities. Brussels. Pg. 9. https://www.eda.europa.eu/docs/default-source/eda-publications/eda-brochure-cdp

[4] Florence Parly. French Minister of the Armed Forces. Remarks on Space & Defence at the French space agency’s Toulouse headquarters. September 7th, 2018. Posted in English translation on 23 September 2018. https://satelliteobservation.net/2018/09/23/space-defence-policy-speech-by-the-french-ministry-of-the-armed-forces/

[5] Mahlandt, Taylor, “France is Getting Serious About Its ‘Space Command’”, Slate, 1 August 2019, https://slate.com/technology/2019/08/france-space-command-plan-satellites-lasers.html



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