Space Force Now Says Its Most Important Mission Is Protecting GPS Satellites

Space Force Now Says Its Most Important Mission Is Protecting GPS Satellites
Air Force personnel reciting an oath to join the Space Force at Travis Air Force Base in California in February 2021. (Photo: Noah Berger, AP)

In the pantheon of the armed services, the U.S. Space Force has always been a bit of an odd duckling. Its genesis during Donald Trump’s administration was hardly auspicious, much of its mission exists in the future tense, and it might take a little time for the convention of referring to its personnel as “Guardians” to catch on. It’s not clear when the branch will actually even deploy troops in orbit, other than not anytime soon, and there’s a widespread public perception that the Space Force has little mission beyond its defunct one as a Trump vanity project.

So for the time being, as first flagged by Task & Purpose, the Space Force is emphasising protecting the nation’s satellites from potential harm — specifically, the Defence Department’s Global Positioning System (GPS) that enables people across the planet to pinpoint exactly where they are. In a recruiting commercial posted to YouTube titled “Space Is Hard” on Tuesday, members of the service explained the importance of keeping those satellites functioning and secure from anyone who might want to hack or destroy them.

“I think it’s important because we use [satellite tech] in everyday life, for example, the GPS that we use every day,” Space Force intelligence officer Captain Pierre Jones said in the clip. Colleague and operations officer Captain Natalia Pinto weighed in as well, adding “The most important thing that the Space Force supports, from the perspective of a civilian, is the fact that we have GPS. That is something that is leveraged by an individual, companies, banks, all sorts of financial institutions. So from the outside looking in, that’s probably the most important thing that we rely on.”

As Defence One noted, while the first thing that may come to mind for most people regarding GPS is finding directions to the nearest McDonald’s, GPS is indisputably one of the most critical space-based technologies in use today.

The 31 satellites that comprise the GPS system not only provide location data for commuters and travellers, but provide ultra-precise global timekeeping critical to timestamps on the international financial network, ensure electrical grid operators have correct real-time data, help route cellular networks, coordinate traffic signals, and provide navigational data for aviators and shipping. GPS also has countless scientific uses, including earthquake and volcano monitoring and meteorological, hydrological, and atmospheric research. And it, of course, has numerous military uses.

While GPS is, as the New Yorker reported last year, “remarkably robust,” potential ground-based risks include GPS jamming, which can interrupt signal reception and render drones inoperable. Another is GPS spoofing, in which a malicious party can trick GPS-enabled systems into reporting false data. Other nations such as China have started racing to expand their own GPS systems, and unlike many of those, the U.S. has no terrestrial backup systems in case the satellite network fails. There’s also the potential of cyber or physical attack on the GPS satellites themselves by a hostile nation-state.

Like other theoretical threats, such as electromagnetic pulse attacks, the vulnerability of the GPS system is the subject of habitual chatter among members of Congress and defence pundits. Yet according to War on the Rocks, these risks are often overstated, as many commercial technologies characterised as reliant on GPS to function are really only GPS-aided, while the risk of jamming or spoofing military systems is mitigated by electronic protection features, redundancy, and encryption.

Physically shooting the satellites out of the air could be disastrous, as would an adversary somehow taking control of or subverting the network with malicious code. War on the Rocks noted that either a physical or cyberattack wouldn’t be a one-and-done issue, as the physical distance between satellites and slow upload times would make either method a lengthy enough endeavour to invite a response. A RAND Corporation study released in June 2021 concluded many dire assessments of GPS vulnerability were overblown.

“Plausible potential threats from human actions and natural hazards are of very limited duration — days at most — and most threats are also quite limited in areal coverage,” the study’s authors wrote. “… When estimates of the cost of GPS disruption or loss include realistic adaptation options and existing complementary technologies, the estimates are surprisingly low.”

Elsewhere in the video, Chief of Space Operations General John “Jay” Raymond pitched the Space Force in less aspirational terms than some of its prior commercials, selling it as a brass-tacks operation concerned with the complex practicalities of protecting space assets hurtling around the globe.

“It used to be all we had to worry about was astrophysics, Kepler’s law, gamma rays, solar flares, rocket science, black holes, and the theory of relativity… But now we also have to track about 30,000 objects orbiting at over 28,164 km per hour,” the general said.

“And our entire way of life depends on us to protect our satellites from attack, day and night. So yeah, space is hard,” Raymond added.

While GPS got the main shoutout, Captain Pinto also suggested the Space Force could play a role in protecting the International Space Station, which “mans three astronauts and also a lot of research is conducted onboard.”

The Space Force is aiming to expand to 20,000 members in the coming years, up from nearly 5,000 members as well as about 10,000 civilians and reassigned Air Force personnel as of April. According to Task & Purpose, the service recently launched YouTube and Twitter accounts for recruiting purposes and sent its first class of future recruiters to attend training at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California in August.