Cybersecurity is the “soft underbelly” of space networks, says US military Commander

Space domain has become a contested one, yet cyber remains its weak entry point, head of the US Space Force’s Space Operations Command (SpOC), Lieutenant General (LTG) Stephen N. Whiting, said.

Satellite-based communications have proven pivotal in modern warfare. While in the not-so-distant past, comms relying on human-made moons used to be a tool only superpowers could afford, space commercialization democratized access to such technology.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown just how important commercial space services can be. Even though Ukraine cannot boast a comprehensive satellite network of its own, its military forces can use satellite-based artillery targeting. All it takes is SpaceX’s Starlink terminal and a little ingenuity.

SpOC, Space Force’s top organization for space, cyber, and intelligence, is closely following the events in Ukraine. Russia’s war in Ukraine is the first war to ever showcase the importance of commercial space infrastructure, Whiting said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“We have seen the importance [of commercial space] in that conflict. And that kind of validates what we have seen for a decade, of how fast commercial space is moving and the opportunity that it affords for countries around the world and the US Department of Defense,” Whiting said.

Otherworldly woes

Discussing SpOC’s role in the space domain, Whiting said that cybersecurity in space is still somewhat overshadowed by more conventional threats such as anti-satellite weapons (ASAT).

“We have to be cyber secure in everything we do because that’s a soft underbelly of these global space networks,” SpoC Commander said.

According to Whiting, creating sufficient cyber defenses capable of withstanding the pressures faced by space assets in a contested domain is a ‘tough nut.’

The Commander explained that the US military has a few centuries of experience in assessing the level of risk for the physical security of assets. For example, the military can erect physical structures to prevent unauthorized access and foster cooperation with local law enforcement to help protect them.

The same intuitive tools and partnerships that guarantee physical security do not yet exist in the cyber realm, the Commander thinks.

“We don’t yet have the intuitive understanding to say that based on a threat that we’re seeing, ‘Have we done enough?’ […] I don’t want to act like we don’t have any of those tools, but it’s not the same comprehensive understanding we have for physical security,” Whiting explained.

“We have to be cyber secure in everything we do because that’s a soft underbelly of these global space networks,”

LTG Whiting said.

Skyrocketing importance

While securing space assets has always been a military priority, the war Russia launched against Ukraine last February demonstrated how the cyber realm could potentially impact satellite communications.

For example, on the eve of launching its military endeavor in Ukraine, Russia carried out cyberattacks on ViaSat’s satellite KA-SAT network, causing outages for several thousand Ukrainian customers, as well as energy producers in Germany and emergency services in France.

The conflict also raised questions about whether commercial satellites are legitimate military targets if they’re used to advance adversaries’ goals in the conflict. For example, former head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, expressed discontent over Ukrainian forces using Starlink satellites for communication.

SpaceX’s owner, billionaire Elon Musk recently said that his company spends tens of millions of dollars every month on “enhanced security measures for cyberwar defense.”

At the same time, hacktivist groups have been actively targeting ground control stations and other space assets. A group of hackers affiliated with Anonymous said they disrupted Russia’s vehicle monitoring system in early March.

More recently, pro-Ukrainian hackers claim to have penetrated Gonets, a Russian low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications network, deleting a database that is crucial to its functioning.

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