The Strategic Military Importance of the Space Domain

Speaker: Robert Mazzolin

February 2, 2023

The Strategic Military Importance of the Space Domain

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The Strategic Military Importance of the Space Domain

Robert Mazzolin

This video is part of Cybersecurity and Outer Space, an essay series that explores space governance through three themes: space security and risk, international governance challenges, and global perspectives and the pursuit of inclusivity.

The battlefield is no longer just playing out on land, sea or in the air. Increasingly, military and terrorist activities are happening in cyberspace. These could include cyberattacks on critical systems or infrastructure such as power plant control systems, hospital and banking databases, and communications systems. For national security, states are strengthening their defensive cyber capabilities and encouraging the private sector and civilians to do the same. Many militaries around the world have established some form of cyber branch within their operations, such as the US Army Cyber Command, for example.

Space equipment, such as satellites, is critical for communications, data transfer, Earth observation, reconnaissance and navigational positioning. These space systems are connected to Earth through cyber connections. Increasingly, space equipment is being targeted by cyberattacks. Although traditional warfare using physical means of attack is not happening in space, cyberattacks on enemy equipment are occurring.

In this video, CIGI Senior Fellow and retired Canadian Armed Forces Brigadier-General Robert Mazzolin explains how, in recent years, militaries and alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have established space and cyber branches to address these new operational domains. The current legal frameworks do not properly address these new threats or prevent warfare from spilling into outer space. “Without clear rules and norms, and the threat of hard-to-attribute cyberattacks, there is going to be distrust among nations and unpredictability. This will have geopolitical peace and security consequences,” explains Mazzolin.

The way in which war is waged has changed. China and Russia place heavy emphasis on cyberattacks to support their economic, geopolitical and military activities.

Types of cyberattacks range from shutting down website traffic to widespread telecommunications interruptions. They could steal intellectual property, or sensitive data from a competitor or spread misinformation to destabilize a region. And vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure systems such as power plants or missile silos could be exploited by a cyberattack.

Cyberwarfare has also changed the battlefield because the low cost of such attacks means that many more players, such as non-state actors, proxies, terrorists and hacktivists, can wage a full-scale attack from anywhere in the world.

Many of these attacks, while catastrophic, fall below the threshold of an armed conflict, and it’s often difficult to trace the attacker.

There’s no doubt that the cyber domain is becoming the “high ground” of conflicts in the information age.

Cyber connectivity is everywhere: big systems like banking and data centres, down to our computers, phones, and even IoT-connected devices such as a thermostat or smart light. This is why cybersecurity is of paramount importance, especially in critical infrastructure, which brings us to space.

You see, the cyber domain and the space domain are intrinsically interlinked. Satellites are just as important as Earth-based cables are to the operation of the internet.

Beyond telecommunications, we use space-based infrastructure for Earth observation, positioning, navigation and timing, too.

The private sector is a major actor in the space economy. It’s estimated that in the next 10 years, close to 25,000 satellites will be launched, generating more than half a million petabytes of data and over $1.2 trillion dollars in commercial activity.

If a satellite is disabled or compromised, the effects can have significant impacts. Russia, for example, conducted a cyberattack on the Viasat satellite, cutting off internet access across Europe in the days leading up to their attack on the Ukraine. This impacted civilians, governments and militaries.

Satellite communications and Earth observations are critically important for national security. Militaries rely on live views of Earth to plan operations and real-time communications with commanders and their units in the field.

The protection of space-based systems is critically important. NATO knows this. In 2019, the alliance recognized space as a new operational domain. And the United States Space Force is an equal branch alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force and US Cyber Command.

Increasingly, satellites are serving a dual use by providing military and civilian services on commercial private sector equipment, meaning that the private sector must play an active role in the promotion of cybersecurity standards and best practices.

Currently, the international legal regime is ill-equipped to prevent the weaponization of space-based systems. Without clear rules and norms, and the threat of hard-to-attribute cyberattacks, there is going to be distrust among nations and unpredictability. This will have geopolitical peace and security consequences, and it will have economic consequences as space development could slow.

International cooperation is critical to ensure that space-based systems are protected and deemed critical infrastructure, and that cybersecurity standards and protocols are a paramount feature of private and public sector equipment and systems.

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