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.