Astrosubterfuge: Deception & Disguise in the Space Domain - Lieutenant Colonel Greg Rowlands
In space, all is not what it seems.
Like military deception tactics in maritime, land, air and cyber domains, the space warfighting domain may also be rife with deceit and disguise. So it is foreseeable that space-based deception measures will be a core component of military space operations, due to the unique open nature of space and the predictable physics of Earth’s orbits. There is nowhere to hide in Earth’s gravity well, so clever stratagems to mask space capabilities and mislead rivals will be critical to space infrastructure resilience in future conflicts involving space warfare.
With growing recognition that safe space assets are now vulnerable to interdiction, space-capable nations are likely to be well advanced in pursuit of astrosubterfuge.
Needle in a Haystack
The advent of capable, low-cost small satellites has made satellite mega-constellations a feasible proposition. Commercial constellations with hundreds or thousands of satellites that seem identical could be exploited to include some that have been optimised for military purposes. Alternatively, with software-defined satellite technology, a commercial satellite could be rapidly requisitioned either through a pre-programed timeline (so no detectable signals are sent to it) or via an encrypted burst-transmission command from a covert ground-station to lower the probability of enemy interception.
Space powers could enlist their civilian satellites at will to provide a military mission only for as long as it was needed before switching them back to commercial functions.
In this satellite-in-a-haystack approach there exists a high-degree of risk reduction. An adversary attempting to track threat satellites would have considerable detection and identification challenges. More so if military satellite(s) amongst commercial satellites were rapidly swapped between civilian and military roles, or their military mission lasted only seconds or minutes in selected orbit locations. Consider a commercial internet satellite, which also has remote sensing applications installed. Its camera aperture could be opened briefly while it captured imagery of a target location, all while it sustained a primary internet function.
Images could be transmitted once the satellite is on the other side of the globe in its orbital flightpath, well away from the conflict zone, further reducing compromise risks.
Smart Space Junk
There are a growing number of defunct satellites that remain in Earth’s orbital space, but supposedly ‘dead satellites’ might also be another form of cunning space deception. While attention is focussed on known military satellites on-orbit, an opponent might overlook other spacecraft which appear non-operational. There have been many public announcements about satellites ‘being lost’ following orbital insertion. Convenient cover stories in the open media to protect a vital national security asset. Why wouldn’t you when secrecy in space is paramount?
Sleeper Satellites could be an astrostrategic insurance policy in war, activated at decisive points in an operation or in the event that other space assets are compromised.
Space debris, which appear via radar cross-section to be orbital refuse, such as spent final rocket stages or parts of destroyed spacecraft could also have surreptitious underpinnings. Drifting and or tumbling just enough in an orbital trajectory to be convincing. It is not beyond the bounds of creative astronautical engineering for military space contrivances to be configured in such a devious way. So with a growing debris field in Earth’s orbit profiles, inspecting this clutter to discover intelligent space junk would require a monumental surveillance and analysis effort.
With small satellites the opportunity of another inventive spacecraft application arises. Military small satellites could be mounted inside ‘deployment silos’ within larger civilian satellites. Imagine a science or weather satellite performing a mothership role. Deployment silos could act as incubators until the small satellites were needed in time of war. Several of these Trojan Satellites could be positioned in different orbit profiles, such as low-Earth orbit, polar orbit and equatorial orbit to provide mission redundancy and broader ground trace coverage.
A Trojan Satellite could either deploy a payload of small satellites on its current orbit track or conduct limited orbital manoeuvres to optimise the military mission profile.
To external scrutiny a Spacecraft Carrier might appear just like another science or weather satellite, particularly if the hidden cargo remains inactive or on safe-mode while in incubation. The host satellite could provide both subsystem maintenance functions and space radiation shielding, enhancing the small satellites reliability if and when they were deployed after long-term storage in space. Thus, the concept of Spacecraft Carriers is yet another space resilience measure, which may provide a winning edge at a crucial time during terrestrial combat operations.
If a satellite is transmitting on a military wavelength it is probably a decoy.
Military satellites using civilian satellite frequency bands to transmit and receive data packets should be expected in future warfare. There will likely be non-compliance with spectrum restrictions when it comes to protecting vital space infrastructures. Hence, with covert space activity there will also be demonstration and diversion tactics to draw attention away from the main game. Space decoys could manifest in physical form as functioning spacecraft, launch operations to distract observers or be part of a wider electronic warfare and cyberspace effort.
Scorched Orbit Policy
Short of going full-Kessler in Earth orbit profiles and physically destroying everything that could be a threat on-orbit, it will be difficult to unmask deception action in space.
Collisional cascading through the mass destruction of spacecraft would probably be an option of last resort. Space nations will be reticent to pollute the space domain lest it impede their own operations and restrict access to space long after the war’s end, so this disastrous scenario is unlikely. Consequently, it seems that building space operations resilience through deception and disguise could be a growing risk reduction approach that space powers might energetically progress. Finally, it now seems apparent that astrosubterfuge may be a rapidly evolving lexicon of military space operations and a keystone survivability feature of astrostrategy.
About the Author: Greg Rowlands served over 27 years in the Australian Regular Army and has published extensively on military space operations, including emerging technology trends and shocks affecting military affairs. He is a former Project Director in Project LAND 400 Land Combat Vehicle System. You can find him on Twitter @glrowlands1.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.