There are a lot of misconceptions about satellites in war. So many people believe that they can be used to instantaneously target and attack ships at sea, as if the satellites are directly connected to the firing button of every missile shooting asset we – or the enemy – has. That’s not even remotely true but that’s not the point of this post.
Another widely held belief is that every satellite in orbit will be destroyed in the opening hours of a war. However, while the US and China have both demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites using missiles or orbital ‘seeding’ of debris, there is no evidence that either side possesses sufficient satellite destruction capacity to completely eliminate the other’s satellites in a matter of hours. How many satellites will be destroyed in the opening days of a war? 5%? 50%? 90%? No one knows, at least not in the public domain.
What is certain is that many satellites will be quickly destroyed and that, due to depleted numbers, surviving surveillance satellites will be tasked with high priority surveillance, meaning nuclear monitoring and mass troop movements. Individual ship movements will be a much lower priority, bordering on unavailable.
Everyone is focused on the physical destruction of satellites but what gets overlooked is that satellites are extremely vulnerable to being rendered inoperable (mission kill, in a sense) via software and communication attacks.
All satellites depend on software control systems for guidance, movement, alignment, operation, data transmission, and data interpretation. That represents a lot of opportunities for software disruption via cyber attacks, hacks, viruses, etc. Every satellite that can receive a ground control signal (and that’s all of them) is susceptible to software attacks. Just from the cyber attacks that have been publicly acknowledged, we know that China has thoroughly penetrated our industrial and military networks. It is elementary logic to assume that China knows our satellite software systems and is prepared to cyber-disrupt our satellites the moment war begins. Unlike the limited degree of physical destruction, cyber-destruction has the potential to eliminate nearly all our satellite capabilities.
The other vulnerability is communications. After all, a fully functioning satellite is useless if its data can’t be transmitted and received. Satellite data transmissions are vulnerable to communication link disruptions, jamming, false signal injection, etc. We’ve seen examples of this for years with Russian interference and manipulation of GPS signals. As with cyber-destruction of satellites, the potential for communications disruption is likely greater than the potential for physical damage.
It seems likely that the predictions of massive satellite ‘destruction’ in the opening hours of war are correct, however, the method of that destruction is likely to be software cyber attacks and communications disruption more so than physical destruction. Nevertheless, the end result is the same. We’ll have few remaining functioning satellite assets and those that survive will be tasked with only the highest priorities. Searching for individual ships on the ocean will not be one of those tasks.
Satellite survivability is of immense importance for both offensive and defensive operational planning. We have to know to what degree we can depend on satellite surveillance, if at all, and we have to know to what degree our forces will be susceptible to enemy satellite surveillance. Hopefully, the Navy, who ought to have a much better informed grasp of all this, has taken satellite survivability into account in its planning … not that I’ve seen any evidence of war planning.