Politics

Space Force Could Be Compromised From the Get-Go, Watchdog Warns

Malicious actors could take advantage of Air Force’s laxity, according to report

An Air Force communications satellite is launched from Cape Canaveral in March 2017. (Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force is not adequately monitoring the pedigree of parts that go into critical space systems, and they are consequently at risk of being compromised by America’s enemies, according to a Pentagon inspector general report released Thursday.

It was the second of four audits that Congress has ordered on the subject, and the results so far indicate a systemic failure to safeguard what goes into U.S. weapons and satellites.

Air Force Space Command did not identify all its components and suppliers, nor sufficiently conduct threat assessments, nor require the purchase of the proper circuits from trusted suppliers, nor ensure the right testing capabilities, the audit said.

“As a result, an adversary has opportunity to infiltrate the Air Force Space Command supply chain and sabotage, maliciously introduce an unwanted function or otherwise compromise the design or integrity of the critical hardware, software and firmware,” the report concluded.

The inspector general’s work suggests that systems that are critical not only to the U.S. military but also to the global economy could be jeopardized. The audit on space assets comes as President Donald Trump has stressed their importance and has advocated creation of a separate military branch to be called Space Force.

Multiple space systems at risk

The new audit focused mainly on the U.S. program to develop new missile-warning satellites, called the Space Based Infrared System.

In that program, the Air Force relied on contractors’ assurances about the pedigree of components rather than independently verifying them, the report said. The Air Force was unable to provide the auditors with the name and nationality of the developers involved with designing the satellites. And the command “did not perform due diligence” on all the suppliers.

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What’s more, a limited review of three other programs in the same audit revealed similar problems. These were the Global Positioning System, which is critical to civilians worldwide and to U.S. military operations; the Air Force Satellite Control Network, a command-and-control system; and the Family of Advanced Beyond Line‑of‑Sight Terminals, which are communications nodes designed to enable secure satellite communications during wartime.

The auditors recommended that the Air Force Space Command take a series of steps to more effectively monitor suppliers. Brig. Gen. Philip Garrant, the command’s vice commander, concurred with these recommendations in a June 29 letter that is reproduced in the audit.

Oversight of missile defense also criticized

The new report is the second of four that the inspector general is producing in response to a requirement in the fiscal 2017 defense authorization law.

The House Armed Services Committee requested the four IG reports in 2016 after the Government Accountability Office reported on shortcomings in oversight of the U.S. military’s supply chain. The GAO had found that the Pentagon’s knowledge of the parts that go into its systems came not from direct assessments but from contractors.

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Besides Thursday’s report on Air Force Space Command, the IG reported last year on supply-chain security for the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground Based Midcourse System, which is the key missile-interception system based primarily in California and Alaska, and which is aimed at stopping North Korean ICBMs.

The finding for the antimissile program was just as unflattering as its assessment of Air Force Space Command programs. The IG said the Missile Defense Agency “faces an increased risk that an adversary could infiltrate the supply chain and sabotage, maliciously introduce an unwanted function, or otherwise compromise” the system.

Two other IG reports responding to the congressional order are yet to be published — one on nuclear command and control systems and the other on one of the means of delivering nuclear warheads. Both of those will be classified, a spokesman for the IG’s office said.

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