U.S. ‘self-jamming’ of satellites shows how vulnerable they are to an enemy

Thursday, December 03, 2015 by

(Cyberwar.news) More than 250 times over the past year the U.S. military was unable to receive downlink information from its own satellites but, according to Air Force brass, it most were likely due to a case of self-jamming.

Most. And only likely. Air Force brass don’t really know for sure, according to Breaking Defense.

What they do know, however, is that represents an electronic vulnerability that could be exploited by an enemy in a time of global crisis.

As reported by NationalSecurity.news, China has been working steadily to develop an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability, but using a direct-ascent weapon (missile) to physically destroy satellites in orbit. Russia has also been developing an ASAT capability and recently completed its first successful test. But even though they are both also investing heavily in cyber- and electronic warfare, thus far they are not electronically shutting down U.S. satellite links – yet.

“In 2015 thus far, we have had 261 cases where we have been jammed from getting information from our satellites down to the ground segment,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, said recently at the Association of Old Crows electronic warfare conference.

In all, that’s about 23 times per month, noted Breaking Defense noted.

“How many were caused by an adversary?” Hyten said. “I don’t really know. My guess is zero.” He added that the real cause is “almost always self-jamming” where the United States’ own transmissions, radar or radio, unwittingly interfere with satellite signals Hyten told reporters following his conference remarks.

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“The moral of that story is the electromagnetic spectrum is unbelievably complicated and the smallest mistake can create huge strategic impacts,” Hyten noted, “so you have to be able to monitor the electromagnetic spectrum, from the most tactical unit all the way up to the most strategic [level].”

If we’re self-jamming, Hyten continued, that means we don’t have enough awareness of what U.S. forces are doing in the spectrum, let along that of an adversary.

“We have not had a focus on it,” Hyten admitted, though the Pentagon is currently working on ways to build awareness.

“We’ve just been assuming that the RF [radio frequency] spectrum is a benign environment and nobody’s going to threaten us,” Hyten told conference, Breaking Defense reported.

However, as the Defense Department has relied more heavily on use of satellites and encrypted communications networks, “the rest of the world’s been watching that too,” Hyten said, “China and Russia in particular.”

The Space Command chief noted that while Russia and China are working on missile systems that can physically destroy satellites, “you don’t have to shoot a satellite down to defeat it, all you have to do is cut off the link.”

“We have to be able to effectively operate in this contested, congested environment,” Hyten said. “We’ve got to be able to fight in it and defeat any adversary that’s in there….but if we don’t train our airmen fundamentally differently to operate in this environment, we can’t do that.”

According to a recent assessment by the Sans Technology Institute, most likely any “hack” of a satellite would involve a DOS, or “denial of service,” attack, which would essentially render the satellite useless because it would not be able to transmit and receive data.

They can also be hacked in an attempt to steal data. In September the Washington Post reported that a hacking group with Russian origins was able to access older commercial satellites containing sensitive military and diplomatic data, and then mask their location.

See also:

Breaking Defense


Washington Free Beacon

Sans Technology Institute

Washington Post


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