How to fight a war in space (and get away with it)

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

We depend on satellites, so knocking them out is becoming a military priority:

Today, much more civilian infrastructure relies on GPS and satellite communications, so attacks on them could lead to chaos. The military leans more heavily on satellites too: data and video feeds for armed UAVs, such as the Reaper drones that the US military has flying over Afghanistan and Iraq, are sent via satellite to their human operators. Intelligence and images are also collected by satellites and beamed to operations centers around the world. In the assessment of Chinese analysts, space is used for up to 90% of the US military’s intelligence.


Non-state actors, as well as more minor powers like North Korea and Iran, are also gaining access to weapons that can bloody the noses of much larger nations in space.

That doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations. Some hackers are thought to have done this already.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands.


There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground. Again, it’s surprisingly easy. In the summer of 2013, some students at the University of Texas used a briefcase-sized device to spoof a GPS signal and cause an $80 million private yacht to veer hundreds of meters off course in the Mediterranean. Their exploit wasn’t detected (they later announced it themselves).


There’s no evidence that anyone has yet used lasers to destroy targets in space, though aircraft-borne lasers have been tested against missiles within the atmosphere. The DIA report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent.

Lasers need to be aimed very precisely, and to work well they require complex adaptive optics to make up for atmospheric disturbances, much as some large ground-based telescopes do. Yet there is some evidence, all unconfirmed and eminently deniable, that they are already being used. In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.


In November 2016, the Commercial Spaceflight Center at AGI, an aerospace firm, noticed something strange. Shortly after it was launched, a Chinese satellite, supposedly designed to test high-performance solar cells and new propellants, began approaching a number of other Chinese communications satellites, staying in orbit near them before moving on. It got within a few miles of one—dangerously close in space terms. It paid visits to others in 2017 and 2018. Another Chinese satellite, launched last December, released a second object once it reached geostationary orbit that seemed to be under independent control.

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically.

Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.


  1. Graham says:

    In the pilot of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which actually was a good series for a time then lost the plot quickly, the conceit was that the Cylons, a cyborg enemy, had managed to hack the Colonies’ defensive computer networks including their Network Enabled Operations type fleet command and control and all individual ships’ command systems. Through espionage and a honeytrap. [This episode really had all its bases covered.]

    The Galactica was old, and was not plugged in. In a scene prior to the surprise attack, a reporter asks aging commander Adama what he has against computers. He replies, “I have nothing against computers. There are many computers aboard Galactica.” And goes on to explain the virtues of some hard segregation among key systems.

    As in so many other areas [naval contruction, air force procurement, Middle East fixations, and on ad infinitum] in this area I wonder what US military and political leadership has been smoking all these years.

    It’s not unlike the use of the web to manage the electrical infrastructure or other key systems. When someone explains advantages to me like reduced manning, centralized control of power spikes or distribution, and so on, I guess I get it. But still. To design a system that obviously vulnerable to widespread, sudden assault, one really has to assume there are no threats, ever.

  2. If you don’t have assets in space at all, or don’t care about them, it becomes even easier and cheaper. Help the Kessler syndrome along. Ball bearings, stone, perhaps even something lighter since the impacts will be taking place at such high speed.

  3. Graham says:

    Could you launch a warhead full of ball bearings into orbit, have it disarticulate and scatter its contents, and just wait for them to clear their orbit? How many would you need to send up?

    Orbital Shotguns.

  4. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Graham, The total connectedness of civilian and military systems only works in a high trust environments which disappeared decades ago. I agree with you even with high trust it doesn’t make sense to interconnect crucial systems.

  5. Graham says:

    Interesting- I wouldn’t necessarily have put that into the framework of trust levels in the US, North America in general, or Europe, although considering the possibility of domestic civil unrest, insurrection or terrorism I should think of it that way. I was more thinking of external military or terrorism threats.

    What gets me is that most of this kit, or the concepts behind it, was developed in the Cold War or just after and implemented in the past generation. Almost like a technological/civilizational sea change as part of the peace dividend.

    And yet although America was once a higher trust society than today in many ways in everyday life, it had also just gone through world wars and the Cold War and nuclear standoff with the Russians, as well as Vietnam and years of domestic unrest, and at least for half of that was a much more secretive government and corporate environment than it is today, with many examples of obsessive security culture in place.

    And yet almost overnight it created a life-sustaining, indispensable infrastructure with all the robustitude and survivability of tissue paper strung together by Rube Goldberg.

  6. Bruce says:

    “If you don’t have assets in space… Help the Kessler syndrome along.” — August Hurtel

    Yes, this looks like one of those weak points where one man can take on the world and win, or at least make the world lose.

  7. CVLR says:

    Yeah, attack is probably a more likely mode of catastrophe than solar flare.

    Graham mentions the prescience of Battlestar Galactica, and the construction of our indispensable, life-sustaining infrastructure with all of the robustitude and survivability of tissue paper, strung together by Rube Goldberg. The first I’m inclined to agree with more every day, and the second is just a wonderful way to put it.

    The irony is that all of these changes are pitched as unalloyed improvements. For example, and perhaps the archetypal example of this Goldbergian TP mess, so-called “SaaS” (pithily described as “device as dumb terminal; brains elsewhere”), is billed as less expensive (total cost & liability both), more reliable, and more free than the “obsolete” model, in which software was a thing that you bought and owned — if only at a specific version number — and ran on your machine, which you also owned.

    SaaS isn’t just a business model; it’s a phenomenon, a philosophy, a way-of-being, an expression of an ethic. Capitalists are interested in capital, and it would seem that it’s often substantially more profitable to turn everyone into permanent renters than it is to allow anyone to own anything, a reiteration of the age-old story, feudal lords, yeomen, and tenant farmers all.

    At least when the intelligence of your machine is in your machine, it continues operating on its own merits. When its brains are accessed via an omnipresent umbilical cord to the mothership in the sky, not only can a purchased copy of 1984 be officially memory-hole’d, but the thing might not even turn on at all.

    If the infrastructure experiences an interruption in your area, LibreOffice will continue to function — but Google Docs is just so much more “Googly”. My Boomer relatives desperately need to be able to start their cars from the comfort of their couches, with their cellulardevices; this is an indispensable feature and absolutely worth every downside, of which there are none. Their vacuums, also, should be as accessible to the “N””S”A as they are to themselves. Their Bezos speakers are the future, just as they were promised.

    Also, televisions listen to you now, and official manufacturer advice is to not discuss sensitive topics within tympanalshot.

    The Benthamian Utopia approacheth.


    (And all of this is to say nothing of the dams, bridges, or grid.)

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