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 ...

U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force

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.

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.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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