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Star Wars: 'Spoofing', anti-satellite weapons and conflict in space



11 May 2016 10:27

Space warfare has been a real possibility since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Part of the cause of 'Sputnik Shock' was the fact that the rocket that launched the world's first satellite was actually an intercontinental ballistic missile, designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US.

Fears of the possibility of extending war into space partially drove the crafting of the Outer Space Treaty by the UN in 1967. This treaty prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons in space and resolves other potential points of conflict. Despite this, space has been heavily militarised for decades.

Every major defence force (including Australia) utilises space assets. Communications, weather, navigation and surveillance are all supported by military satellites. But these are largely passive, non-aggressive actions. Most controversy over warfare in space has arisen over anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, an area of strategic planning that still seems surprisingly unresolved for this age.

Crude ASAT weapons were tested in the 1960s and reached technical maturity in the 1980s. There were two basic strategies. One was a precision targeted missile, launched from a fighter aircraft, which rammed a satellite. This was the favoured US approach. The second was the less precise but simpler 'suicide bomber' satellite that exploded near its target, showering it with shrapnel. That was the Soviet approach. Both superpowers developed these weapons, but seemed reluctant to extensively debate or even deploy these weapons. 

The 2007 test of a Chinese ASAT weapon, a ground-launched missile, made headlines around the world. So did the active destruction of a malfunctioning US spy satellite by a US ASAT weapon, a modified missile launched from a naval vessel. These events served as a reminder that ASAT was quiet but not dormant. But discussion generally went quiet soon afterwards.

All this time, ASAT was regarded as only practical for satellites in low orbits where these weapons could reach them. Satellites in higher orbits, such as the Navstar satellites that beam GPS signals, or the huge armadas of satellites in geostationary orbit, were out of range of these early weapons. 

In 2013, China launched a 'scientific' rocket believed to be a test of a more advanced ASAT system, capable of hitting satellites in the very high geostationary orbit belt. This has apparently spooked the US military into a crash response program to protect its satellites. Exactly how this will be accomplished is unclear. It is also reasonable to assume the US is also working on ASAT systems to attack high-orbit satellites. But the whole subject still retains a surprising air of obscurity in an age where we drool over any revelation of electronic snooping or special operations. 

There's a major strategic motivation to avoid too much talk about ASAT.

Revealing plans, capabilities and intentions allows countermeasures to be taken. That's true for any strategic theatre. But there is one aspect to ASAT that is almost never mentioned: spoofing. This is the ability to 'hack' a satellite's command and control functions with radio transmissions, much as computers are subjected to 'cyberattacks' on Earth.

Spoofing is probably the easiest and most damaging way to attack a satellite. Everyone knows this, but generals and boffins alike treat the subject as taboo. Spoofing is probably the real ASAT capability that nobody wants to admit to owning or holding any vulnerability. Military cyberattack capabilities are now tacitly admitted by most nations. It's taken a long time for everyone to declare these options, which have presumably existed covertly for decades. It could take years more before 'spoofing' is truly brought in from the cold.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Global Panorama.

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