Once upon a time, only a handful of nations were capable of building and launching expensive spacecraft for SIGINT gathering.
Look at a list of satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Out of 2,061 operational satellites 63 are collecting Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). The vast majority (60 satellites) are owned by just four nations; France, the People’s Republic of China, Russia and the United States. Cost is the major inhibiting factor for a nation to design, produce, launch and operate a SIGINT satellite. As a means of comparison, France’s new CERES SIGINT bird, being jointly developed by Thales Alenia Space and Airbus’ Defence and Space subsidiary, will cost $495.6 million and yield three spacecraft, the first of which is expected to be launched in 2021. More details on this programme can be found in Armada Analysis’ ‘French Flare for Space SIGINT’ article. Look a little more closely at the global list of SIGINT satellites and three spacecraft stand out; Hawk-A, Hawk-B and Hawk-C. These were all sent into space on 3 December 2018 sharing the load of a Space-X Falcon-9 rocket launched from Vandenburg airbase, California.
What makes the Hawk constellation remarkable is that it is not owned by any government, but instead by Hawkeye360, a private-sector provider of SIGINT and geospatial intelligence based in Hendon, Virginia. The private sector launch and operation of SIGINT spacecraft is the result of the proliferation of small satellites which help to reduce launch costs: The three Hawk satellites each weigh 15 kilograms (33 pounds), classifying them as microsatellites. This allowed three of them to be lifted in a single launch. By using three satellites the source of a signal can be triangulated: “We believe that formation flying spacecraft are critical to offering accurate signal geolocation,” John Serfini, the chief executive officer of Hawkeye360, told Armada Analysis: “Our sophisticated attitude control and propulsion systems enable us to maintain well-defined formations, so we can conduct trilateration of a very broad range of signals on the ground.” Thus private sector customers can see the location of a transmission, with this information represented on a geospatial image, along with the signal’s parameters. Mr. Serafini continued that “you can manufacture microsatellites faster than traditional satellites, launch them at a lower cost, and deploy a larger constellation for better revisit rates. This makes the approach very attractive when bringing an entirely new data set and new data analytics to market.”
Yet more private sector space SIGINT providers may enter the marketplace in the coming years with the advent of cubesats; spacecraft that weigh no more than 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds). This will reduce launch costs yet further, David Stupples, professor of electronic and radio systems at City University, London stated during the Association of Old Crows EW Asia conference and exhibition held in Singapore this January. He said that cubesat launches can cost as low as $100,000 thanks to the ability of such spacecraft to share rocket space with other payloads. He continued that construction costs are around $400,000. John Beckner, the director and owner of Horizon Technologies, says that such spacecraft are “relatively inexpensive to produce and launch, and the technology is advancing to allow SIGINT receivers to be deployed on relatively small cubesats.” He notes that the ability to launch several cubesats with a single rocket allows a constellation to be rapidly deployed, and as cubesats eventually de-orbit (burn up in the atmosphere) they can be quickly and inexpensively replaced with satellites carrying the latest SIGINT technology each launch.
Horizon Technologies is providing the SIGINT payload for the UK’s IOD-3 Amber cubesat which is expected to be launched in 2020. The satellite will possess an L-band (1.3 gigahertz/GHz to 1.7GHz) and Automatic Identification System (AIS: 161.975 megahertz/MHz to 162.025MHz) SIGINT package. This is derived from Horizon Technologies’ FlyingFish communications intelligence system. AIS is mandated by the International Maritime Organisation for all vessels displacing over 300 tonnes. AIS transponders transmit an array of information on a vessel’s voyage, identity and location. Once aloft, the IOD-3 will provide its SIGINT data directly to government customers, Mr. Beckner adds. He states that the SIGINT to be collected will include electronic intelligence (geolocation and parametric information) from radars and L-band satellite phone communications including geolocation data and content. Crucially, while constellations like the Hawk-A/B/C spacecraft need multiple satellites to perform signal geolocation, Mr. Beckner states that the IOD-3’s SIGINT equipment includes a proprietary technique which allows geolocation to be performed with a single spacecraft.
Mr. Beckner believes that the bandwidth covered by SIGINT cubesats could expand still further in the future: “I think they will eventually be able to do quite a bit of the three gigahertz to 18GHz spectrum,” increasing the number and variety of communications and radar systems they can keep tabs on: “They won’t replace aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles or strategic space-based SIGINT platforms, but they will certainly be a powerful adjunct.” Mr. Serafini concurs: “We consider the technology as augmentative to traditional government systems. We are introducing a commercial capability of geospatial signals data that is easier to access, share, and, very importantly, interpret.”