People jest that space is the final frontier, unchartered territory, or other romanticizations. However, in terms of security and warfare, “space” refers to the area immediately surrounding terrestrial bodies. More specifically, space warfare concerns the satellites, defense systems, and critical assets orbiting the Earth in the exosphere and thermosphere and the signals communicated to and from those systems. When President Trump suggested the creation of a new branch of the military, the United States Space Force, reactions came in two forms. Some were tantalized by imaginings of a revitalization of space exploration initiatives and technology booms reminiscent of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Others rolled their eyes and scoffed. Both sides missed the point. They overlooked the necessity of studying and securing extraterrestrial assets because they were too absorbed in fantasies and partisan politics. Warfare in space is not kinetic. It is a cyber conflict centered on the control, disruption, theft, and manipulation of information.
Satellites alone are essential for financial transactions, the modern Internet, and communication networks. Similar satellites enable real-time linkages between military units. Reconnaissance capabilities hinge on data captured from satellites. Navigation satellites guide ships, planes, and vehicles. Malware is already capable of kinetically destroying critical energy grid assets, disabling vital Internet systems, and holding hostage essential medical systems. It is within the technical capabilities of Russia, China, Israel, and the United States to develop and deploy malware capable of monitoring, hijacking, attacking, and destroying space systems. Consider the potential strategic benefits of denying a target access to satellites necessary for planning and executing military operations.
Strategic offensive and defensive operations involving assets in orbit are both possible and likely underway. In fact, in 2016 NASA reported 1,484 cyber incidents involving relevant technologies. However, many, if not the majority, of aforementioned systems and the networks upon which they depend remain vulnerable to adversarial compromise because the technology and network architectures were designed considering only their functionality, not security. Systems are woefully interconnected because until recently disaggregation was seen as expensive and cyber resiliency was delegated to a lingering afterthought compared to physical durability. The lack of integrated layered cybersecurity solutions throughout the development lifecycle led to innumerable expensive and critical systems that could be exploited by an imaginative adversary at any moment. Worse, when attacks do occur, there is little the United States or other nations can do to mitigate or directly respond to the impact because the few laws that exist concerning threats in space predominantly pertain to kinetic threats from known adversaries. International treaties pertaining to space or even cybersecurity in space are widely seen as outdated or realistically unenforceable.
While the shift to a risk and security mentality is ongoing, experts estimate that with regards to assets in Earth’s orbit, the United States may have one of the worst cyber postures compared to other global leaders. To address threats in this emerging arena, to popularize essential topics, to incite critical conversations, to conduct vital offensive and defensive research, and to facilitate invaluable collaborations between the public sector and private sector, the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT) is launching the Center for Space Warfare Studies in April 2018.