The Cyber Threat to Satellites

September 09, 2019
The Cyber Threat to Satellites
U.S. Navy Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance
The Cyber Threat to Satellites
U.S. Navy Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance
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The Australian Defence Force has a heavy dependence on satellite communications for force coordination at long range. Satellites such as those that make up the US GPS network are critical for weapons guidance and joint command and control and space-based intelligence. Surveillance and reconnaissance is vital for understanding the battlespace, including adversary operations, and other satellite services such as meteorological support are essential for military operations.

The loss of those capabilities as a result of counterspace actions would render the ADF unable to fight in a joint and integrated manner or to take a modern, information-based approach to warfare. It would force us back to a more industrial level of warfare, where casualties are high, hostilities prolonged, and victory is anything but assured.

Counterspace capabilities are emerging in the Chinese and Russian militaries. One trend is towards the development of ground-based and space-based (co-orbital) ‘soft kill’ counterspace capabilities. Satellites could be targeted through electronic warfare (jamming and spoofing), microwave weapons, laser dazzling and, perhaps most worryingly, cyberattacks.

The prospect of cyberattacks on satellites dramatically expands the scope and risk of counterspace threats for a number of reasons. Countries like China and Russia, and even Iran and North Korea, are highly experienced in waging cyberwarfare, and directing such attacks against satellites is something they could do now, and at relatively low cost. Cyber-based counterspace capabilities can proliferate to non-state actors. It’s easy to imagine terrorist groups—or an individual hacker—exploiting such a capability to strike at the heart of US and allied military capability, or to attack Western economies and infrastructure.

The nature of cyberwarfare means that a state can conduct ‘grey zone’ operations in orbit with a low risk of detection or even complete anonymity. And it doesn’t require a declaration of war—vulnerabilities in supply chains, for example, could be exploited months or even years before a conflict begins, particularly if Western states depend on foreign suppliers of vital components. The reliance of Western armed forces on commercial satellites to augment bandwidth makes this an even greater concern.

The effects of a cyberattack can be swift even if it’s executed before the outbreak of hostilities. The rapid effects generated as cyberweapons are unleashed through networks can deliver a first-strike advantage, and the need to move quickly to defeat countermeasures means there’s a cyber imperative that will drive a cult of the offensive—whoever strikes first wins.

Cyberattacks on satellites, unlike physical attacks, don’t create massive clouds of space debris. If the attack is successful, the target satellite is disabled, disrupted, damaged or even potentially hijacked to provide false information, but remains intact. Cases of GPS spoofing attacks by Russia against NATO have already occurred and show a willingness by adversaries to flout international norms of non-interference in the space capabilities of other countries.

Australia must prepare for such attacks. Understanding the nature of threat is the first step. Australia’s defence and strategic policy community must ask how cyberwarfare in space might emerge and what the likely impact of cyberattacks on satellites will be, both on the ADF’s ability to fight and on Australian society more broadly.

Analysis must also be undertaken on how can the ADF respond to this threat. The US is pursuing a deterrence approach which emphasises building resilience in space and developing the means to pursue both defensive and offensive counterspace capabilities. How Australia could play a role alongside the US by burden-sharing to meet the cyber threat in orbit is an issue that needs further thought. Any Australian response should also consider putting an increased emphasis on formulating new, stronger legal mechanisms that would potentially support a control regime in the future.

It will be critical to develop enhanced intelligence to detect and defend against soft-kill offensive counterspace threats, including cyber threats. The 2016 defence white paper highlighted that Australia already plays an important role in space situational awareness by monitoring space activities out to geostationary orbit. But this monitoring is largely done through optical and radar imaging from the ground. Having the ability to identify adversary activity in space, including ground-based actions in cyberspace and across the electromagnetic spectrum, would be an obvious next step. It would contribute towards denying anonymity to a would-be attacker, even in cyberspace.

The transformation of the global space sector through Space 2.0 and the rapid commercialisation and democratisation of space mean that many more space actors, both state and non-state, are at risk from counterspace threats. This is a complicating factor given the likely dependence of western military forces on commercial systems for new types of capability. For example, commercial ‘mega-constellations’ of thousands of small satellites in low-earth orbit will be essential for supporting the ‘internet of things’ that will underpin future logistic and command-and-control networks or support autonomous systems. If these commercial space systems can be hacked, much of our military capability may become inoperable.

There are legal challenges, too. Using existing laws and agreements, it’s difficult to effectively verify and monitor ground-based counterspace capabilities such as cyberattacks. A state can gain international goodwill by signing a new space law agreement, or supporting space arms control, for example. But if those agreements can’t be monitored, it’s easy for the same state to violate them by covertly developing and employing counterspace capabilities in a grey-zone-type operation. If a satellite begins behaving oddly, or is failing to send data, is it a technical fault or a cyberattack? If it’s a cyberattack, who’s behind it? How do we respond to non-state cyber threats against satellites? The fragility of norms and legal regulations is an issue which proponents of laws and arms control measures as means to stop proliferation in space don’t seem to have answers for.

India’s test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon in March led to an international outcry because it generated space debris and went against desired norms towards non-weaponisation of space. Soft-kill threats such as cyberattacks are more insidious and potentially more dangerous, because they can be used without the fallout of space debris, and offer scalable, potentially reversible effects. Australia must understand and meet the challenge of soft-kill counterspace threats to its critical space systems, including those in the cyber domain.


Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at ASPI.


This article appeared originally at The Strategist (ASPI).



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