Alexa ‘US military satellites likely cyber attacked by China, Russia’

‘US military satellites likely cyber attacked by China, Russia’

Science & IT

Published: 14:47 6 July 2019   Updated: 14:59 6 July 2019

Representational Photo

Representational Photo

The cyberwarfare between US and Iran hit the headlines last month when the US retaliated Iran’s surveillance drone with an offensive cyber strike to disable the computer systems used to control rocket and missile launches. This attack on Iran’s core command and control system was a “game changer”, according to Zak Doffman, CEO of Digital Barriers. 

New research from a leading defense ‘Think Tank’ has turned the tables, suggesting US and NATO command and control systems are themselves open to compromise due to 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.” 

The vulnerability of space assets “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,” said Zak Doffman in a written article in Forbes. “And the implications are serious- with the critical dependency on space resulting in new cyber risks that disproportionately affect mission assurance.”

Meanwhile, 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. The offensive cyber strategy adopted by China and its state-sponsored hackers has been a constant backdrop to the trade and security conflict underway.

“Both China and Russia prioritize electronic warfare, cyber attacks, and superiority within the electromagnetic battlespace,” claiming Digital Barriers chief. “A key focus on preventing adversarial satellite-based communication systems from impacting their operational effectiveness. ” 

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,” Zak Doffman wrote. 

But the risks are also increased because the military relies on commercial satellites for sending data and receiving information such as weather, navigation. So, an attack here would challenge the integrity of data carried through these technologies- impacting control systems or reliability or available bandwidth.

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 cyberattacks can be mistakenly portrayed as remote, digital-only exercises. This is not the case. Offensive cyberattacks are not isolated and have a critical physical dimension. 

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.” 

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.

They said, “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.