U.S. Military Satellites Likely Cyber Attacked By China Or Russia Or Both: Report
Cyberwarfare hit the headlines last month when the U.S. retaliated against Iran’s downing of a surveillance drone with an offensive cyber strike to disable the computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches. The U.S. compromising Iran’s core command and control systems was a “game changer,” and I reported it as such.
New research from a leading defense think tank has turned the tables on that theory, suggesting U.S. and NATO command and control systems are themselves open to compromise because of vulnerabilities in the satellite systems carrying mission-critical data. Cyber attacks on satellites “have the potential to wreak havoc on strategic weapons systems and undermine deterrence by creating uncertainty and confusion,” Chatham House claims, “a significant and complex challenge due to the absence of a warning and speed of an attack, the difficulty of attribution, and the complexities associated with a proportionate response.”
Worse, given the critical reliance on space assets to direct modern warfare, and the vulnerability of those assets, “it would be prudent to assume that an adversary is already active in these networks and focus on resilience measures—with increased urgency for advanced techniques… to identify and respond to modern threats.”
The enemy here is not Iran—it does not have the sophistication, it is China and Russia. And the implications are serious, with “the critical dependency on space resulting in new cyber risks that disproportionately affect mission assurance.” Tensions with both Russia and China are intensifying. A report for the Joint Chiefs found that the U.S. is failing to deal with Russia’s growing influence on the world, and this presents a national security risk. Meanwhile, the offensive cyber strategy adopted by China and its state-sponsored hackers has been a constant backdrop to the trade and security conflict underway.
For Chatham House, because “both China and Russia prioritize electronic warfare, cyber attacks and superiority within the electromagnetic battlespace,” and both nations have “a key focus on preventing adversarial satellite-based communication systems from impacting their operational effectiveness,” the implication is that those two nations are the adversaries likely to have set out to compromise the satellite networks used by the U.S. and its allies.
The military has been reliant on satellite battlefield communications for generations. But this reliance had expanded to include missile defenses, unmanned weapons guidance, target acquisition and the advanced ISR capabilities embedded in command and control programs. ”In the event of crisis escalation, such as in Ukraine, the Middle East or in South Asia, the assumption is that weapons systems will perform as planned. But this should not be taken for granted. It is mission-critical for NATO to manage, preserve and protect space capabilities.”
The risks are increased because the military relies on commercial satellites for sending data and receiving information—weather, navigation, imagery. An attack here would “challenge the integrity of data carried through these technologies,” impacting control systems or reliability or available bandwidth. And those risks reach beyond the military sphere, with “any threat to a satellite’s control system or available bandwidth posing a direct challenge to national critical assets.” With dual-use satellites, designed for commercial and civilian applications, there is “an increasing need to apply higher-grade military hardening and cyber protection specifications to civilian capabilities that have the potential to be used in support of military applications.”
The breadth of the satellite industry, the dual-use of its assets, the hybrid nature of its traffic is an immediate cyber red flag. Offensive cyber attacks can be mistakenly portrayed as remote, digital-only exercises. This is not the case. Offensive cyber attacks are not isolated and have a critical physical dimension. Compromising nation state systems is complex and mixes physical and digital assets. A wide range of covert ground-based activity and digital espionage targeting individuals and organizations supports the work of the cyber agencies—including the compromising of individuals to access key systems.
For the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, people working in the space industry likely “constitute the weakest link in cyber defense.” But to this, you can add aging IT systems, outdated civilian cyber defenses and typically slack corporate information security across legacy systems. A wide range of vulnerabilities. Highly sophisticated cyber adversaries.
Electronic warfare on the part of Russia in Europe and the Middle East and cyber offenses on the part of China have become the reality of modern-day hybrid warfare. “Sophisticated cyber attacks on the systems of NATO or its key member countries have a new and distinct impact on decision-making and on how NATO conducts its operations,” warns Chatham House. “Cyber attacks on military systems could also have a paralyzing effect on strategic military and political decision-making and could render NATO countries vulnerable to Russian or Chinese information and deception operations.”
All of which is on the agenda for the new U.S. Space Force, expected to be up and running next year.