NGSO Systems and Their Significance to Intelligence Collection
Satellite infrastructure has played an increasingly critical role in global communication since the 1960’s. Within the past five years, however, the deployment of satellite systems has risen dramatically. The reason for this exponential increase is the rise of non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) systems. These systems in general, and their ability to intercept cellular communication, present an opportunity to increase SIGNIT collection capabilities and provide greater intelligence dissemination security. This paper supports this finding in three sections. The first provides a technical overview of the advances that have made NGSO systems possible and the scientific theory that allows them to intercept all cellular communication. The second observes three intelligence gaps this technology will be able to fill. The third analyzes three hypothetical use cases demonstrating this technology’s importance.
Section I: The Technology
NGSO systems are networks of satellites that utilize a combination of phased array antennas and inter satellite links to provide global service, meaning they allow individuals to connect to digital and cellular communication anywhere on the globe. This technology utilizes frequency signals to transmit this information. Similar technology was attempted during the 1990s with projects such as Iridium and Globalstar. And while they had similar technological capabilities, the cost of producing such equipment was not practical, particularly given the relatively lower demand for digital and cellular communication services.1 Instead, digital and cellular networks are traditionally composed of terrestrially bound infrastructure such as cell towers, submarine cables, telephone lines, or fiber optic cables. The advent of NGSO systems, however, fundamentally changes this reliance on geographically bounded internet infrastructure. NGSO systems innovate upon the traditional model by operating in low and medium earth orbits, maximizing service area through constellation architectures, and delivering services at a significantly reduced cost than in previous decades. These advances have so significantly changed the possibility of satellite communication that fifty-thousand satellites are planned for launch within the next decade — while only two thousand have been launched since the 1950s.2
Past satellite companies placed their units in geostationary orbit. The reason for this is simple. Modern communications systems operate through the sending and receiving of encoded radio waves. This is done through communication between a transmission device and receiver. Intuitively, it is easier to transmit to a stationary receiver than a mobile one — particularly if that receiver was to be orbiting the earth rapidly. Furthermore, a stationary satellite was reliable and could retransmit the signal to a base station outside the source's terrestrial view.
This requirement though was overcome by using phased array antennas and inter satellite links. A phased array antenna is an “arrangement of multiple antennas” whose “main beam can be oriented in any direction in space.”3 This flexibility allows for a concentrated radio beam that can move semi-independently of the orientation of the physical dish and more easily track with orbiting satellites overhead. Thanks to this advancement, NGSO systems can operate in either low earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of between 180 and 2,000 kilometers or in medium earth orbit (MEO) at an altitude of 2,000 to 35,780 kilometers. As a result, they complete full rotations around the earth. Lower altitude in turn results in significantly lower latencies making high speed cellular and digital communication possible.
As geostationary orbits relay on a line-of-sight model they are limited in their service area. In addition, ground waves, skywaves, and troposcatter are less reliable at the frequencies required to communicate with geostationary systems. As a result, satellite communication service areas were limited to their individual field of view until the development of inter satellite links (ISL). Inter-satellite link is a general term for “a radiocommunication service providing links between artificial satellites.”4 ISLs follow different protocols but serve the common function of allowing a seamless transfer of service between satellites as their service area changes. This means NGSO satellites can transfer connections to each other without interruption to a client’s service.
Phased array systems and inter-satellite links are, however, not new. Both were the backbones of NGSO projects undertaken in the 1990s. The true problem then, and the real success now, is the affordability and efficiency of the equipment. In the 1990s, a single Iridium phone was priced at $3,000 dollars. In addition, talk-time ranged from four to nine dollars a minute. The minivan-sized satellites were also costly, and only able to service 25,000 customers at a time.5 Depressed demand prevented even this number from being reached, however. Due to the rapid advancement of terrestrial cellular technology, Iridium only managed to bring in 10,000 concurrent users. For Iridium, what began with celebration from firms such as Goldman Sachs ended with a chapter eleven filing in 1999. Today these prices are staggeringly lower; with SpaceX’s program offering high-speed internet access for less than one-hundred dollars a month in their beta stage.6 As a result, the catalyst for the current increase of NGSO systems is not an advancement in technology but rather the general decrease in expense, heightened efficiency of systems, and rise in demand for cellular and digital connectivity.7
What is novel, is the realization that unenhanced cell signals could be intercepted by NGSO systems. This discovery was made by former NASA employee Charles Miller, who described the process as “almost magical” that “the phone in your pocket today, can be connected everywhere.”8 In 2018, the method of interception was outlined within a patent application. The application centers around the design for a “multiple-access transceiver” that “handles communications with mobile stations in environments that exceed mobile station design assumptions.”9 In other words, this device can intercept cellular signals from a distance and speed at which traditional cell receivers do not operate.
This is surprising, given the fact that the transmitted frequency is received in a distorted state owing to attenuation (the gradual weakening of the signal) and doppler distortion (the shifting of the frequency as it hits a moving receiver). Both are compensated for by two protocols specified within the patent application: a signal timing module and a frequency shifter. The first calculates the distance between the transmitter and the satellite and dynamically compensates for the changing distance. The second is a frequency shifter that alters the replying frequency in such a manner that it “appears to the terrestrial mobile station to be, communication between a terrestrial cellular base station and the terrestrial mobile station.”10 According to reports from 2019, this technology was validated when a “two-way 2G connection between an ordinary ground device and the satellite” was successfully established.11 The attenuation and doppler effects, however, are only reliably overcome when the satellite operates at a distance less than 500km.12 It is this final technological advance that, in light of the larger rise of NGSO systems, promises great opportunity and risk to the intelligence community.
Section II: Intelligence Opportunities
While satellites have been integral to intelligence activities they have historically been seen as GEOINT, IMINT, and MASINT devices. NGSO systems, however, demonstrate the capability of modern satellite constellation systems to serve a critical SIGINT role. In 2018, for example, the Supreme Court examined the implications of allowing law enforcement access to information received from cell towers. They observed that, “the time-stamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’” 13 As such, the potential to deploy global constellations of LEO satellites capable of receiving digital and cellular signals constitute a profound information source for defense and intelligence communities. In particular, this section observes three intelligence gaps that NGSO technology is uniquely situated to solve: 1) foreign cellular interception, 2) secure intelligence dissemination, and 3) foreign open-source streams.
(1) Expanding foreign cellular interception capabilities
NGSO systems can increase collection upon foreign cellular signals. The United States enjoys a substantial advantage in internet surveillance capabilities. The ICT field is dominated by American corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. As a result, utilizing internet services often requires routing data through American controlled assets. This makes digital surveillance possible and often robust. Such advantages, however, do not translate so easily into cellular information. While a foreign national who utilizes Google will necessarily leave information behind, this is not necessarily the case for the same national who places a phone call. There is no need for cellular connections to access central servers and instead can be more easily contained within national borders. NGSO systems would be able to fill this intelligence by acting as a global constellation of cell signal receivers.
Such actions would increase our information dominance by making it theoretically possible to collect on any call without the use of local assets. The advantages of this capability will be abundant and could easily be levered to reduce strategic surprise. The greatest challenge will be in establishing and organizing analytical methods for discerning and identifying key information.
(2) Expanding secure dissemination capabilities
NGSO systems have the ability to secure information flows by limiting the use of foreign owned infrastructure. The digital or cellular collection of intelligence from foreign assets currently requires the use of foreign infrastructure as intermediary nodes. This undermines information security and exposes risk to digital and cellular mediums of intelligence collection. At the same time, alternatives are often impractically slow and unable to match the speed of relevance. Historically, the remedy has been to increase cryptographic, steganographic, or other obscuring techniques. Despite such methods the use of foreign infrastructure remains problematic. This is exemplified in the United States’ concerns surrounding the market dominance of Huawei and the popularity of their telecommunication equipment. NGSO systems represent a unique solution to this problem. By utilizing satellite infrastructure, it will no longer be necessary for overseas operations to utilize foreign infrastructure. For digital and cellular connections, it will now be possible for messages to be transmitted and received by domestically owned infrastructure. While it will still be possible for messages to be intercepted this is an ongoing problem already faced today. Secure military orders, source reports, and intelligence dissemination would thus be more easily achieved. This ability, therefore, can increase information dominance by securing information flows and limiting dissemination vulnerabilities.
(3) Expanding ungoverned spaces and open-sources capabilities
NGSO systems have the ability to expand ungoverned spaces and increase open-source capabilities. Open-source capabilities have become of greater value within the digital age. While it was once true that “most detailed coverage of an event, organization, or individual comes from local newspapers” the modern equivalent lies within social media posts, form threads, and online chat rooms.14 This intelligence source, however, is nearly nonexistent within authoritarian regimes with limited or censured internet access. There will always be useful information contained within apps like WeChat but its ability to reflect common sentiment is limited based upon government censorship. NGSO technology has specifically been developed with the intention of expanding internet access. This mission will necessarily come with an increased ease of accessing uncensored internet connections. It is for this reason that China and Russia have already introduced legislation against the use of such devices by their own populations. This ability, therefore, will decrease barriers between local populations and intelligence systems and thereby increase the utility of open source collection.
Section III: Possible Uses
This section analyzes three examples of NGSO use for intelligence purposes: (1) surreptitiously intercepting Russian activity, (2) providing Uighur dissidents open communication channels, and (3) implementing a mandatory communication channel for personnel abroad. Cellular Intelligence in the Donbass
The gap present in foreign cellular collection was seen during the Russian army’s buildup along the Ukraine border in April 2021. The international community continues to discern motive, intention, and likelihood of attack. Furthermore, given the location of the military buildup the United States was limited in its ability to collect on cell phone signals that might illuminate the situation. NGSO systems would prove useful within this case scenario. With the capability to intercept cell traffic it would be possible to gain understanding of individual Russians’ perception of events through serendipitous monitoring of their phone activity. Such data points could be greatly useful in expanding our intelligence preparation of the battlefield and better understanding local sentiment.
Securing Intelligence Across Europe
The prevalence of Huawei telecommunication equipment across Europe poses a problem for sharing sensitive intelligence. With sensitive NATO relationships concentrated within this region, the danger posed by Chinese surveillance capabilities is significant. Furthermore, despite attempts at curbing Huawei sales, the company recently announced the building of a factory inside of France — its first manufacturing plant outside of China.15 As a result, it appears likely that the proliferation of Huawei infrastructure will present a vulnerability within NATO’s intelligence cycle. NGSO systems can solve this dilemma by offering a reliable, practical, and secure alternative — particularly for government clients operating with sensitive information. Indeed, the United States ought to require that all intelligence be transmitted over such channels.
Chinese Domestic Landscape
The ability for NGSO systems to expand internet access would result in an expansion in open-sources capabilities. This is of greatest significance within authoritarian nation-states such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Golden Shield and great firewall initiatives prevent robust OSINT capabilities by limiting citizen communications. As a result, gathering local information such as the mass mistreatment of Uighur Muslims is challenging. This could be solved by expanding open internet access to the PRC through NGSO systems. Such attempts will be controversial and result in international disputes. Such programs, however, could begin covertly and under the plausible deniability of a corporate enterprise. In either case, understanding the dispositions of local populations is a critical component of terrain analysis. By utilizing NGSO systems we can increase our information dominance concerning global human geography.
NGSO satellites will significantly change the intelligence landscape. Unlike the 1990s, today’s digital and cellular demand and technologies are prepared to support these global constellations. As a result, their SIGINT significance will grow rapidly in the next few years. In response, the United States intelligence community ought to utilize these new information channels to expand foreign cellular collection, secure dissemination of sensitive information, and expand OSINT within previously denied areas.