how covert asymmetric warfare could go orbital
"Whoops, sorry about colliding with your satellite, it was a complete accident we'll absolutely investigate. We promise..."
Some of my latest posts about cyber warfare seem to have attracted a few eyes, including those of someone who does research in the security field. One pair of the eyes in question belong to Dr. Jan Kallberg, who was kind enough to send me a paper regarding the political side of standardizing security standards and a piece on space warfare strategies which delved into detail about something I mentioned regarding one surprising problem with cleaning up space debris. Considering that standardized communication satellites should be using the same operating systems and therefore, likely to be susceptible to very similar exploits, Dr. Kallberg envisions covert, space-based wars which use hijacked satellites as missiles. Now, mind you, you cannot just grab any old satellite and send it hurling into a covert military asset because you’ll need to change orbits, an ability which is very limited for many spacecraft, and you’ll need to know exactly where this asset is. It’s not at all impossible as demonstrated by an amazing astrophotographer who captured a Keyhole spy sat, but it’s also not trivial. Though, if you can pull it off, chances are that you may actually escape a swift retaliation.
Imagine that you’re a nation with spy satellites scattered around Low Earth Orbit and a rogue communication satellite just careened into one of them. If it was the property of a native company, you could always ask for an explanation to make sure it wasn’t compromised and find some sort of digital trail pointing to foul play. But if a foreign satellite is involved, how exactly do you prove a breach or a deliberate crash? Maybe someone from a rival state paid for the satellite, the company shot it into orbit only for it to sadly spin out of control and thwack a spy satellite from your inventory at 17,000 mph. You’d have to do a lot of digging in a potentially hostile terrain to put together the real sequence of events. But we might be getting ahead of ourselves. First ask yourself if it would be wise to acknowledge the loss and try to retaliate for it since you’d be exposing a secret sat program, and also saying that your orbital assets can be tracked and shot down for as low as $51 million per shot. Yes, it sounds very expensive, but when your multi-billion dollar SIGINT program could be derailed for $250 million or so, it’s a blow to your intended ROI and a devious exploitation of a loophole in the Outer Space Treaty…