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So in the story I'm writing, there is a huge battle occurring for Earth between a rebel fleet and an interplanetary superpower. With a ground war raging below, the superpower's military decides to arm its network of kinetic bombardment platforms stationed in Low Earth Orbit to initiate a strike at the next window in its orbit. However, doing so would leave the platform at it's more vulnerable to attack by the rebel fleet.

So this got me thinking, what would be the safest way for the superpower to carry out a kinetic strike? They could set up the platforms with automatic defenses and launch remotely; but then the connection could be hacked into by the rebels.

On the other hand, the procedure to launch could be carried out by the platform's crew. But if the rebels gained control of the ship, they would have the upper hand until the superpower's fleet could regain or scuttle the platform.

What would be the best method for the superpower to initiate a kinetic strike without compromising the security of their launch platforms as soon as it's armed?

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    $\begingroup$ why is the platform more vulnerable after arming than before arming, I would think a preemptive strike on the platform would be a key strategy anyway. I can't see a reason why they would wait until it's arming. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 17 '17 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Mattias but how that makes platform vulnerable? Do they have to drop shields to power railguns? Do they need to disable space-to-space weapons or point defences? If answer to those questions is "yes", then why wasn't the station designed with more reactors, or a small power surplus and hypercapacitors to handle spikes in usage? $\endgroup$ – M i ech Apr 17 '17 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ Never, never ever build a superweapon without a remote stop/abort/self-destruct. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Apr 17 '17 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ Agree with @Miech, you should explain how the platform become vulnerable after it's been armed. His explanation is the most logical, but maybe the crew must evacuate when it is launching the attack (for some reason), leaving the platform defenseless $\endgroup$ – Vylix Apr 17 '17 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ You must present the problem before we can come up with any idea to tackle the problem. "Vulnerable" is too broad. $\endgroup$ – Vylix Apr 17 '17 at 4:31
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The answer to this is really to simply use common sense in your protocols.

Step one of any security question like this is to build a threat model. What are my attackers capable of, and what are they trying to do? What constitutes "taking over the station?" How good are your officers at disposing of launch keys if a threat is found onboard the station? Without a good threat model, you'll never be able to achieve your goals.

Also note that there is no such thing as perfect security. This is true even for nuclear weapons. We've gotten pretty darn good at securing them, but any security expert worth talking to knows that security is never perfect. In fact, you will find there's a natural balance between:

  • Security - making certain someone else can't fire the weapon
  • Availability - making sure you can fire the weapon when you want to
  • Ease of use - how hard is it to actually fire and maintain the weapon

You'll have to strike a balance between them. Duress signals are a very common tools for this. If the station believes it may be under attack at the moment, they may send a duress signal telling the ground stations not to give them any launch codes until they can sort out their mess upstairs.

I also highly recommend you read up on the two generals problem. In the two generals problem, two generals have an enemy city surrounded. They want to attack, but they know they can only break the defenses if they both attack at the same time. Unfortunately, the generals are stuck in valleys on both sides of the city, so they can only talk by messenger. This messenger may get intercepted by the enemy. The question is how they can arrive at a consensus on when to attack to guarantee that they attack that the same time.

As it turns out, that particular problem is proven to be impossible. The two generals cannot do it with the tools provided. The rest of the article covers all the variants which let you provide bounds on the confidence in your actions.

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The first thing to note is that "kinetic strike" is a fancy term for "dropping rocks on things". You don't need a fancy orbital platform for this; all you need is some propellant attached to some rocks.

Here's how that would work: the superpower launches a satellite into orbit. The satellite is just a rock with an engine and a receiver. When the receiver receives the electronic order to fire, it fires the engine, dropping out of orbit and falling onto the appropriate spot on the planet.

Military technology is not super vulnerable to hacking. When we say "hacking", what we frequently mean is "the doofus who made this thing didn't bother configuring the security properly, so somebody else who understands how the thing worked got control of it by using the default password". If you hire someone competent to manage security, you can generally make things pretty hack-proof -- meaning, there are a bunch of kinetic launch codes (like "nuclear launch codes", but kinetic), and they're written down in a book in a safe, and you can't control the kinetic strike unless you transmit the code to the satellite.

Also, it's way cheaper to do it this way than to have humans living on orbital weapons platforms waiting for the day when they need to push a button. That means you can have lots and lots of them, so if the rebels manage to shoot a couple down with missiles, it's no big deal -- certainly not as bad as if they had a weapons platform and the rebels boarded it and took it over.

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As Mormacil said, you don't really need to shoot a kinetic weapon from orbit. You just drop it and let gravity do the rest (for...okay, for like 10-20 years).

However, if your weapon requires rerouting power from defensive systems to the launch protocol (for whatever reason - energy storage issues, plot-critical weakness, etc.) you have some options:

Protection against remote hacks:

The simplest solution is to raise some sort of EM shielding around the platform (or at least its signal receiver) to prevent unauthorized signals from taking control. This has the disadvantage of you not being able to call off your kinetic attack, as there's no way to get an override signal to the platform at that point.

More complex software solutions do exist - multi-level authentication, for example. However, cyber security can always be circumvented with enough time and effort.

Protection against physical attacks:

If your rebels decide to take out your orbital offense platform, station a defense platform alongside it for targeting SA weapons. Or station some smaller defensive craft nearby to prevent interference. The added bonus of a secondary vessel nearby is that, if the rebels do gain control, you can take out your own weapon immediately before it's used against you. Downside would be added cost for secondary defenses.

Overall protection:

Attach it to something else that has other kinds of weapons. Fit kinetic weapons to existing military craft with SA and AA defenses already in place. As long as your craft doesn't receive control inputs (only orders) remotely, you're about as secure as you're going to get.

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  • $\begingroup$ " You just drop it and let gravity do the rest." I seriously considered down-voting this one. OK. so you open the bay doors and release the clamps on your KW. Now it just sits in the bay, since it is in orbit. You MUST fire it away from the platform, and at fairly high speed if you want it to deorbit in any reasonable time. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Apr 19 '17 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ Low Earth Orbit has drag, which the platform will have to be constantly providing thrust against. Depending on the platform design, it is entirely possible to release the trailing rod and have it de-orbit due to drag. $\endgroup$ – Chris M. Apr 19 '17 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisM. Not true for low earth orbit. The ISS does have to boost up on occasion, but it is in no way constantly thrusting up. Something would have to deploy a massive aerobraking device in order to decelerate and fall in a reasonable amount of time. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Apr 19 '17 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ @JasonK I tried to edit my comment (but it's past time) to state that it wouldn't reach anywhere for quite some time. Mostly I was defending my assertion that it is possible to release an object from LEO and have it fall out of the sky. It just won't hit your target for probably 10 years or more. $\endgroup$ – Chris M. Apr 19 '17 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisM.- How about editing your question, then? Or at least pointing out that 10 years might be a bit long to wait for most military operations. Plus, of course, projecting the final impact point might be just a bit challenging. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Apr 19 '17 at 18:16
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/What would be the best method for the superpower to initiate a kinetic strike without compromising the security of their launch platforms as soon as it's armed?/

Launch the entirety of your kinetic load in your strike. Even if platform is later commandeered by enemies they will have nothing to drop except energy bars, spare socks and other stuff they brought with them. That stuff will burn up / not fly straight etc. I think it is unlikely that an attack group of space commandoes are going to schlep along a bunch of heavy kinetic strike projectiles when they rush in to take over. They will take over and find the ammo is gone.

Prior notes have stated the importance of a self destruct mechanism. This could be in the form of a special pink kinetic projectile. It is pink so your side remembers not to drop it. If anyone tries to drop this one it will destroy the platform.

If you are super wily you could just leave these pink projectiles for the enemy commandos to find when they take over. They are the only ammo left. For all the commandos know the projectiles were all pink. They find out the nature of these pink ones the hard way when they try to use the platform.

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  • $\begingroup$ I know that putting a self destruct button would be an easy way to deny the enemy from taking a platform; but Kessler syndrome could be one heck of a side effect to deal with. Debris could damage nearby ships, drop pods, satellites, and even other platforms if they got in it's way. $\endgroup$ – Mattias Sep 9 '17 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ Self destruct should irreversibly destabilize orbit, not blow platform to bits. Maybe by jettisoning a massive component up and out? Both pieces descend and burn up in a nice, orderly fashion. $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 11 '17 at 17:20
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If your system can guarantee that the actual activation takes place, the best way would be total isolation of the electronic systems. No network access, no open nodes, denial of all command systems on API and operating system levels.

Alternatively, don't use much computer technology and let the launch platform receive codes, start engines and charge capacitors, while at the same time destroying its control systems with a power surge. The projectiles would be released when the capacitors are ready to release the power stored automatically without any need for intervention. This would also mean destruction of your launch platforms, and you wouldnt really need an engine either. As a variant of this, use your launch platform as the projectile.

The problem is, if you do either of these, you are also unable to stop a bombardment order if a rogue element had control, or if you want to abort a firing mission.

Not using autonomous systems isn't really a solution either, as people are necessarily a weakpoint. People have desires, they have a price. Nobody is the exception really, it does only depend on the price, and be it the life of your lover, brother or child.

My point is, regardless of which method you use to secure your platforms, you will never be able to remove all of their risk factors. You can manage your risks, by implementing protocols, redundancy, technical solutions and organizational solutions, i.e. accepting the risk as unavoidable and mitigating it by f.e. having enough platforms that losing a couple wont make a difference, or by having a sufficient anti-platform-weaponry at hand to destroy them before they can launch (which is then also vulnerable to a similar array of threats).

TL:DR You could say its similar to IT-Security. You can never be sure nothing is going to happen, in fact, it is guaranteed it will happen, and you can only minimize the damages this will cause.

My proposal would be to distribute the firepower as much as possible, so each platform only has minimal armament, thus accepting the risk of one getting hijacked, but being sure that losing one will not compromise most of your infrastructure.

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The mechanics of these kinetic energy bombardment systems have been described in detail on other posts, so I will look at the security issue.

There are really only two ways to ensure that the owning power is capable of using the platforms as desired:

  1. The platforms are not in orbit at all, but held on the ground in secure launch sites or dispersed mobile platforms. The weapons are secure until needed, then launched into orbit. The kinetic energy of an impactor launched on a ballistic path isn't going to be much less than one coming from an orbiting platform, and the platforms can be placed in a Walker Constellation if needed for a delayed strike. This is particularly effective if the satellites are designed to attack tactical targets, so they are launched in response to a carrier task force putting out to sea or a tank column breaching the Fula Gap.

enter image description here

MGM-134 hard mobile launcher

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Polar and Walker constellations compared

  1. "Dead man switch". The platforms are launched and placed in orbit, but are already armed and programmed to attack their ground targets, but only if they do not receive a signal from their control stations. The enemy is informed of this, so knows that attacking the communications hubs, jamming the communications signals or other attempts to interfere with the satellites will automatically result in having kinetic impactors released upon them. This works with KE satellites programmed to bombard pre designated and fixed installations, but is less effective if the platforms are designed to attack tactical targets like ships or tank columns (since targeting information needs to be fed to the platform in this case).

enter image description here

Already waiting in orbit

As a practical matter, having a few, high value targets makes little sense, so there will probably be a large Walker constellation of platforms prepared to respond immediately by attacking logistics and communications nodes, with follow up waves waiting on the ground to deal with follow up targets and seek out tactical target opportunities.

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You don't really arm it. You just build Project Thor, also known as Rods from God. artist’s concept of launch satellite You only need a platform to mount it on. That will house some thrusters to keep in orbit, a guidance computer and an energy cell. It really uses very little. When it's told to strike all it does is release the grip on its munition.

What does it fire? Nothing really, all it does is drop a telephone pole sized tungsten rod. It has some small fins to aid its descent. A slightly more sophisticated version would have a small guidance system in the back, like many smart bombs these days.

It won't fire any engines, it will be much smaller then a regular missile. Its diameter is likely about a foot/33 cm. With such a small profile it will be very hard to pick up. Impact will be in mere minutes after being released and strike about Mach 10.

Its only real weakness is that with such a speed re-entry will blind any sensors we know so no course corrections till after. That of course only leaves us with a few minutes at best. So against a moving target it's less useful. However the impact will still be akin 11.5 tons of TNT. So a near miss is still a kill.

artist’s concept of launch satellite

To quote Wikipedia:

Some systems are quoted as having the yield of a small tactical nuclear bomb. These designs are envisioned as a bunker buster. As the name suggests, the 'bunker buster' is powerful enough to destroy a nuclear bunker. With 6–8 satellites on a given orbit, a target could be hit within 12–15 minutes from any given time, less than half the time taken by an ICBM and without the launch warning. Such a system could also be equipped with sensors to detect incoming anti-ballistic missile-type threats and relatively light protective measures to use against them (e.g. Hit-To-Kill Missiles or megawatt-class chemical laser).

So this system would in no way lose effectiveness when preparing for a strike.

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  • $\begingroup$ So, will it be automated and subject to hacking, or manned and subject to boarding? The question was not the particulars of the weapon itself. You gave an elaborate answer to something that was not asked, and said nothing about what was asked. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 17 '17 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ >However, doing so would leave the platform at it's more vulnerable to attack by the rebel fleet. Project Thor doesn't arm and doesn't give a warning it's about to fire. Thus negates the presented problem thus isn't that a solution? $\endgroup$ – Mormacil Apr 17 '17 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ You should explain that at the top, then go into details of how it doesn’t need arming. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 17 '17 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ Project Thor platforms do not simply release the rods. "When a strike is ordered, the satellite would brake one of the rods out of its orbit and into a suborbital trajectory that intersects the target. As the rod approaches periapsis and the target due to gravity, it picks up immense speed until it begins decelerating in the atmosphere and reaches terminal velocity shortly before impact. The rods would typically be shaped to minimize air resistance and maximize terminal velocity." Engines are fired. Your answer can be Improved. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 18 '17 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android - And "brake one of the rods" doesn't do it justice. It requires a fairly high delta-v to produce a short trajectory, which in turn is needed for any sort of accuracy. Basically, it requires a booster for each rod which could pretty much launch the rod into orbit from the earth's surface. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Apr 19 '17 at 15:48

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