The Complex

The Air Force wants to protect its spacecraft from cyberattack

We've been inundated with information about the threat that foreign cyber attacks pose to U.S. power systems, banks, and transportation infrastructure for years now. Now, the Air Force's research arm is turning its attention toward protecting space systems from cyberwar.

The military relies on its massive fleet of spacecraft -- from satellites to secret space planes like the X-37B shown above -- to do everything from providing precision navigation and targeting to passing secure communications from stealth bombers to their bases as they fly over hostile territory. It's such a critical asset that Air Force officials, worried about enemies like China or Russia taking out U.S. satellites with anti-satellite missiles, that the service occasionally practices operating for "a day without space," in order to get used to the notion that it may not be able to rely on its orbital infrastructure.

Anyone who has been paying attention to cyberwarfare knows that it would be far cheaper to disrupt or take down U.S. space assets via cyber attack than it would be to develop and launch a missile.

Just imagine if an enemy were able to scramble secure satellite communications or manipulate GPS coordinates, thus sending U.S. troops to the wrong locations.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has kicked off a new program looking at technology that would protect spacecraft from these kinds of cyber attacks.

(The Ohio-based lab is the Air Force's far-out research lab, responsible for developing insect-sized UAVs, stealthy, special ops transport jets, and air-breathing engines capable of propelling aircraft at speeds up to Mach 6.)

"AFRL seeks to gain understanding of the state of industry research pertaining to protecting both ground- and space-based assets that provide space services, ranging from the space parts supply chain to the conduct of integrated space operations," reads this RFI that was updated last week.

In English, that means that the Air Force wants to protect from cyber attacks the networks of every firm that has a hand in building spacecraft or space control systems, and of course the actual spacecraft once they are aloft.

Here are some highlights of the specific cyber-defense technology the lab is interested in:

  • Novel techniques, technologies, and systems to enable spacecraft mission assurance in a contested cyber environment.
  • Analytic tools to help understand space systems' current vulnerabilities to cyber attack and how to design future systems to resist cyber- attack.
  • Technologies that will allow survivable spacecraft missions under adverse cyber stress.
  • Technologies for effectively allowing space systems to distinguish among anomalies caused by system failures, enemy actions, and environmental effects.
  • Survivable command, control and communications, autonomous self-healing systems, and trusted architectures.
  • Methodologies for spacecraft cyber defense-in-depth, focusing primarily on threat avoidance through vulnerability mitigation, and allowing mission survival with graceful degradation under cyber-attack.
  • Novel software or procedural approaches for providing protection to existing space systems.
  • Technologies to provide indications of an active cyber-attack against a spacecraft.

So, if you want to drop that iPhone app you've been working on and get in on this project, you have until May 6 to pitch the service on  your "interests and capability," according to the RFI.

U.S. Air Force

The Complex

Navy intel boss: Ship killer missiles? Don't worry about 'em

Remember those pesky anti-ship ballistic missiles, like China's DF-21D "carrier killer," that everyone worries will be able to keep American ships at bay -- a threat so serious that some say it renders the aircraft carrier obsolete? Well, the U.S. Navy isn't as worried as it used to be thanks to some help from the 17-member Intelligence Community (IC).

"In 2008, [then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead] sent a message to the director of national intelligence saying, these anti-ship ballistic missiles are becoming [a problem]. The proliferation and the technology is pushing these things' [range] out farther and farther and really impacting our ability to get in close" to an enemy's shores, said Vice Admiral Kendall Card, director of naval intelligence, during a conference in Arlington, Va., today.

As a result of this message, "there was a concerted effort across the IC -- I probably can't tell you which organizations did what to make that happen -- but I can tell you that we in fact have some pretty terrific answers [for how to defeat the threat posed by anti-ship missiles] from all that effort, and we're making gains every day from CIA, NGA, NSA -- all the people putting all the pieces together to, in fact, make that happen and develop solutions" for a host of anti-ship missiles, ranging from the DF-21D to the YJ-12 cruise missile, he said.

As would be expected, the Navy's top spy didn't reveal anything about these "solutions." They could range from identifying the missiles' launch sites, allowing them to be picked off, to figuring out the best ways to spoof their guidance systems or shoot them down using ballistic missile defense ships. Who knows.

Long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles like the DF-21D are part of the reason that the Navy teamed up with the Air Force to devise the so-called Air-Sea Battle concept, which is aimed at figuring out how the two services can defeat an adversary armed with weapons meant to keep U.S. forces far from its borders.

Here's what Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told yours truly about Air-Sea Battle last September:

It's an organizing concept, if you will, for how to marry air and maritime power in a way that helps us address contested environments where threat capabilities have grown in a fashion that can endanger or threaten global commons. I think it just brings into sharper focus, at the operational level, those [areas] in which the Navy and the Air Force have common issues -- airspace management, for example, missile defense kind of issues, ISR issues, common weapons that the Air Force and the Navy have developed for many years, electronic warfare -- all these areas that are pertinent to how one operates in a contested environment are very pertinent to Air Force-Navy cooperation to our joint development of not only technologies but operational concepts which develop synergies between the air and maritime domains.

[Air Sea battle is] all about sort of identifying opportunities for collaboration in that world and to get the best thinking on both sides of this equation.

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