Russian ‘Satellite Catcher’ Test a Step Toward Advanced Cyber Attacks?

Russian ‘Satellite Catcher’ Test a Step Toward Advanced Cyber Attacks?

America’s near-total dependence on satellites for the most important elements of national security – secure communications, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and navigation – has naturally attracted our adversaries’ efforts to counter our space-based advantages. 

Those advantages – in intelligence gathering especially – are great, but come at a considerable cost. The price of a classified intelligence satellite can easily exceed $1 billion and the cost to launch one can be $200 million or more.  The whole alphabet soup of intelligence agencies – including the CIA, NSA and NRO (the National Reconnaissance Office) – are highly dependent on such satellites to gather essential intelligence.

Russia’s current test of what is almost certainly a satellite-interceptor has gained even the attention of some mainstream media. But the media attention given the Russian test may act to mask the cyberwar measures being developed by Russia and other nations in concert with these other weapons.

The BBC report on Russia’s “satellite catcher” test was sufficient only to expose the obvious development of the most detectable – and thus least likely usable – of the several anti-satellite weapons we know about. Russia, China and America have been testing weapons capable of intercept a satellite intention for the purpose of capturing or destroying the objects. But that would be ruled out in times of peace – even the quasi-peace that prevails today – because that kind of interception could not be done without the satellite’s operator being able to track and identify the attacker. Capturing or destroying an adversary’s defense system satellites would be an act of war.

But vastly less detectable – and of much greater value to any enemy – would be the ability for a non-kinetic attack: a cyber attack that could enable the interception of intelligence and communications or even the manipulation of them to an enemy’s advantage.

The capability to do that is precisely what both Russia and China – and possibly others – are trying right now to create. We know, for example, that a cyber attack in October on weather satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) disrupted the agency’s ability to send weather information to forecasters and to the military, which relies in part on NOAA weather data.

The NOAA cyber attack was probably perpetrated by the Chinese. It followed other cyber attacks  – also likely by China -on White House emails and the U.S. Postal Service. Which brings us back to the mysterious Russian “satellite catcher” reported by the BBC.

The object has been labeled “Number 39765” by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and is also known as object “2014-28E.” Its behavior has generated intense speculation within the aerospace community. The satellite has apparently approached other Russian satellites at very close range. Is it intended to repair old satellites? Is it aiming to insert malicious software into them? Is it capable of shooting ballistic pellets at them? Does it have internal jammers capable of disabling a satellite while the interceptor is in range? None of my sources can say.

Our satellites are generally vulnerable to kinetic attack, though some may have the ability to maneuver sufficiently to avoid at least some of them. But the ability of any adversary to mount a cyber attack on our defense satellites obviously depends on the ability of on-board computers to resist such attacks. American satellite designers have been aware of this for more than a decade, and our defense and intelligence satellites protected thoroughly, at least in theory.

But defenses against cyber attacks have to evolve at a higher rate than adversaries’ ability to penetrate them do. Can they do so in an environment which reduces spending at the rates imposed by sequestration and President Obama’s other spending cuts?

The Senate and House Permanent Select Committees on Intelligence need to find out. There won’t be time to do so during the current lame duck session, but it should be at the top of their agendas when congress reconvenes in January.