The U.S. Space Force is looking to modernize its Satellite Control Network (SCN), including the future SCN use of a mesh network to improve SCN’s defense against adversary cyber attacks.

“Our scheduling system still operates off DOS [disk operating system]–1990s technology,” Col. Roy Rockwell, commander of Space Operations Command’s Space DELTA 6 at Schriever Space Force Base, Colo., told a Space Force Association virtual forum on May 26.

“We are working through an upgrade that should be complete by the end of this year that’ll bring us up to a Windows-level type scheduling capability,” he said. “So we’re still far behind. We have to make a generational leap in modernization for our space mission systems and get us on software-defined networks, not only for defending from a cyberspace perspective but also for training. Today, we’re on physical networks. All our links are physical. We need those to be virtualized. Every 30, 60 or 90 days we need a new delivery of that space mission system. It’s called containerization. We talk about digital twins. That’s what that essentially is, a digital twin, so when it gets attacked by cyber means, we can stand up another digital twin, mitigate those vulnerabilities that the adversary used to get into that current operation, and then stand that up in seconds, versus today, where it becomes a game of ‘whack a mole’ where we’re trying to find where the adversary is and get them off these physical mission systems.'”

Space DELTA 6 has six squadrons, including three–the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Space Operations Squadrons–that operate and maintain the $6.8 billion SCN. Space DELTA 6 also has three squadrons that conduct active cyber defense for U.S. space systems and is to add another four cyber defense squadrons this summer.

Initiated in 1958 to support the National Reconnaissance Office’s CORONA imagery satellites, SCN is a global system with 19 antennas to help provide command, control, and communications for DoD satellites. SCN supports telemetry, tracking of space objects, and command for U.S. defense satellites and space programs run by NASA and foreign allies. A number of contractors, including Honeywell [HON], L3Harris [LHX], Lockheed Martin [LMT], and CACI International Inc. [CACI] have worked on SCN.

Rockwell said that Cloud-based mesh networks, such as those advocated by the Space Development Agency and SpaceX for the company’s Starlink satellites, will be a big part of the future SCN.

“Space Systems Command and our developers are all over developing that mesh network,” he said. “Matter of fact, we talk about it all the time and how that will help modernize what I operate with the Satellite Control Network. What I see in the future within those mesh networks is, instead of a point-to-point connection between my antenna and their space vehicle, I shoot commands up in an email, and it traverses in seconds to its vehicle. It’s not that point-to-point connection anymore. Our adversary can’t track it anymore. They don’t know what vehicles we’re talking to because it goes into this mesh netwwork and gets delivered to its vehicle just like an email would today.”

Last June, the Government Accountability Office’s annual weapon systems report said that SCN faced significant capacity problems that could prevent SCN from supporting some satellites.

“As of November 2020, Space Force officials said they were evaluating and preparing for alternatives, including supplementing SCN capacity with civil agency and commercial networks in the near term and upgrades to increase SCN capacity in the long term,” per the report. “While commercial networks are capable of performing the same tasks as SCN according to program officials, Space Force officials said commercial networks do present additional cybersecurity risks, which the program would need to assess before use.”

This week, the Space Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office in Albuquerque, N.M., said that it has awarded BlueHalo a $1.4 billion contract for the Satellite Communications Augmentation Resource (SCAR) program to increase communications capacity ten-fold for satellites in geosynchronous orbit “through transportable, electronically steerable phased array antennas…as the demands on the SCN rapidly grow in the coming years” (Defense Daily, May 24).

On the cyber defense side, Rockwell said on May 26 that future, initial attacks on U.S. military systems will likely be cyber ones on U.S. satellites.

“As we look at how we’ll be attacked in future fights and how they’ll try to eliminate us in the space domain, they’ll start in cyber because it’s easier to eliminate that than to launch a vehicle in space–the billions of dollars it takes–to get some kind of kinetic effect,” he said.

The U.S. Stuxnet/Operation Olympic Games cyber attacks in 2008-9 that disabled an Iranian nuclear plant were a “precision targeted cyber munition” that will likely provide lessons for U.S. cyber operations in the future, Rockwell said.