Our interconnected world is completely reliant on satellites. In 2021, there will be an increasing number of attempts by states and independent groups to mount cyberattacks on space infrastructure, with consequences for terrestrial systems.
In 2017, 20 ships in the Black Sea lost their ability to navigate due to a spoofing attack on their GPS systems, almost certainly carried out by Russia. In 2021, Russia will continue such attacks alongside the US, China and India, but they will also be joined by other nations, including Iran. Iran has targeted critical infrastructure in the past – in 2011 it hijacked a US drone by interfering with its navigation system – and since then it has been building its space capabilities.
Space is now so crowded that physical attacks on satellites risk the aggressor damaging their own assets at the same time. Instead, states are now considering cyberattacks to disable or diminish the capabilities of adversaries’ satellites, targeting technology both in space and in ground stations.
Attacks will include jamming, spoofing or shutting down a unit entirely, changing its orbit or disabling components such as sensors. Other attacks in space will be aimed at gaining access to surveillance data and imagery. On the ground, attacks will be on control centres or servers containing data.
This will be a stealthy battleground. Space cyberattacks, unlike other types of counter-space weapons, come with a degree of deniability. Russia has still not acknowledged its alleged role in the 2017 shipping GPS incident, for example, although a year earlier it had said it was adding GPS jammers to more than 250,000 cell towers as a partial defence against a US cruise-missile attack. And, just like their terrestrial equivalents, cyberattacks exploit vulnerabilities that can be silently uncovered long before an actual attack takes place.
Defending against cyberattacks in space will involve comprehensive and ongoing iterative risk assessment. States will have to map out their critical networks and share threat intelligence with their allies. They will need to review the encryption protocols of their ground stations, and they will need to prepare their militaries and other essential sectors for the very real possibility of the loss of space services.
Countries that are able to future-proof their space assets against emerging threats in this way are likely to be the ones that will prevail in what is rapidly becoming a new arena for conflict.
Beyza Unal is a senior research fellow at Chatham House, the London-based think tank