Our New Sputnik Moment: Space Security and Cyber Security Intersect. The Time to Act is Now.
By Diane M. Janosek
Oct 5, 2020

An introduction to this article appeared in the monthly Creating Connections newsletter put together by the women of The CyberWire. This is a guest-written article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, not necessarily the CyberWire, Inc.

Our New Sputnik Moment: Space Security and Cyber Security Intersect. The Time to Act is Now.

As our nation responds to the COVID 19 pandemic, the outbreak presents an opportunity to reflect and review how our nation is preparing for other possible or potential catastrophic events, or seemingly unimaginable events, such as a war in space. The United States is a strong country and global world leader, through its decades and centuries of perseverance, toil, innovation and ingenuity. One lesson learned from the COVID 19 pandemic is that while preparation is key, prevention and eradication of threats are not always possible. Thus, strategic risk mitigation is paramount for a healthy U.S. economy and national defense.

In 2020, what may not have caught Americans’ attention is the steady progression of the weaponization of space. Space is the newest theater of national strategic risk. If space satellites are no longer “safe” in orbit, American space assets become real targets, and the new frontier which the United States must defend. On July 15th, 2020, “Russia conducted a non-destructive on-orbit test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon,” declared General John “Jay” Raymond, Commander, U.S. Space Command and also serving as Commander, Air Force Space Command. This is the same weapon about which General Raymond raised concerns earlier this year, when Russia maneuvered near a U.S. government satellite. Should we be concerned? Yes. "This is further evidence of Russia's continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin's published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold the U.S. and allied space assets at risk," warns General Raymond.

So if true, what is the US dependence on satellites in space? Is the risk to our daily lives a genuine concern? The answers are: yes, virtually all Americans’ lives are impacted by satellites, and yes, the risk to our dependence on satellites in space is real. With both China and Russia demonstrating their potential capacity, although not verified, to destroy US satellites, this is our new Sputnik moment! While we are no longer racing to get into space first, we are now racing to protect and secure American space satellites from harm. America must rise and we will. With the standup of United States Space Command to “organize, train, and equip space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force,” our country is investing in our national defense even beyond our borders and earth’s atmosphere.  

Infrastructure critical to the American way of life.

In 2019, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States, the world leader, was $21,427,100 million (or $21 trillion). The strength of the U.S. economy is due in large part to the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law, the reserved authorities of state and local governments, the commercial incentives available to the private sector, and our robust educational system. 

Whereas the public sector and academia provide the framework for our prosperity, the private sector, small and large businesses alike, is the core of our collective prosperity. American businesses owners can embrace innovation when they see both a consumer need and a way to satisfy it, as well as make a profit. Capitalism has its strengths, and in the democratic collective prosperity approach, it creates a natural shared duty and mutual desire for success. 

The United States economy literally runs and relies on private enterprise. In fact, estimates are that the United States’ private sector owns and operates between 60 and 80 percent of the digital infrastructure, the indispensable highway upon which almost all our commerce is conducted. In the US, 16 business areas are designated “critical infrastructure sectors,” which are all primarily managed and operated by American businesses. A critical infrastructure sector, as defined by Presidential Policy Directive 21, includes the business assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, that are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety. The 16 US sectors are:

US satellite security: a critical infrastructure challenge.

All of these sectors rely on space and satellite technology in some way, e.g. for GPS, time, location, weather, and traffic. Common users of data transmitted by satellite are ATMs, video conferencing, satellite TV and radio, inventory control, pay-at-pump gas stations, phone and broadband, air traffic control systems, sea navigation systems, and the navigation features we use in our autos every day. The list is endless. Satellites make our lives safer, and also easier and more convenient. Americans’ daily lives depend on space and satellite security.

Critical infrastructure sector reliance on satellites means that all of them require cybersecurity and other forms of protection. American lives and freedoms are maintained with this protection. So how is the United States prepared and protected in space from cybers attacks? What really happens in space when space security and cyber security intersect? Are we ready?

Satellites are launched in different orbits at different distances from the earth which provides varying yet unique access and functionality. The United States and dozens of other countries operate satellites in four primary areas: 

  • Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Remote Sensing
  • Communications
  • Navigation
  • Science and Technology

In 2020, how many American satellites are in orbit?

  • 353 Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Remote Sensing
  • 391 Communications
  • 31 Navigation
  • 94 Science and Technology

Source: “Competing in Space,’ National Air and Space Intelligence Center. Jan 2019 (https://www.nasic.af.mil)

The weaponization of space.

Are American satellites in space secure? Is war in space a possibility? The possibility of a space war is no longer science fiction. The threat of the weaponization of space, using battles in outer space to achieve advantages on Earth, is real. 

China: Back in 2007, China demonstrated how space can become a combat zone by conducting an anti-satellite mission test. The country shot down its own weather satellite with a kinetic kill vehicle. It was just a weather satellite – their own satellite. China sent a clear message to the rest of the world: satellites can be destroyed from Earth. Also, open source material confirms that the nascent capability has matured in thirteen years with greater precision. Major Liane “Trixie” Zivitski, United States Air Force, currently serving as J32 Chief of Operations Branch, reported in a publication that the kinetic kill vehicle is now assessed as operational and capable of targeting low-orbit satellites. There is also evidence, according to Zivitski, that China could be developing up to three different anti-satellite missiles. Also on May 5, 2020, there was a reported Chinese launch of the Long March-5B rocket, the design of which is suspected to be suitable for transport into space. These activities are clear indicators that the Chinese, some say, “are determined to replace the U.S. as the dominant power in space."

Russia: On July 15th, 2020, Russia conducted a non-destructive on-orbit test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon. The image created below provides an illustrated view of how Russia used one satellite to “attack” another. A “projectile” was released from Russian satellite Kosmos 2543 toward Russian satellite Kosmos 2542. A full description can be read in “Universe Today Space and Astronomy News,” dated July 28, 2020. The Russians, however, deny this was an anti-satellite weapon test and assert it was an “inspection” mission.

The July 2020 anti-satellite testing by Russia is notable from many perspectives: nation state sovereignty, diplomatic relations, treaty enforcement, military capabilities, academic advances, as well as the pure technological changes in the space domain. Here is another article for more background.

Now America’s two largest nation state adversaries can and have tested space satellites as weapons. So what is really at risk?

The U.S. has more satellites and other equipment in space than any other nation on the planet. We have 353 space assets that deal with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and remote sensing, 391 that handle communications, 31 that enable navigation, and 94 that are part of science and technology development. Each of those assets is a target. With so much of our lives reliant on technologies enabled by satellites, what a fertile landscape for adversaries. 

Is the United States prepared for a threat to satellites?

So, what if an adversary attacked those satellites, as China did to its own weather satellite, and as Russia tested in the near-approach to a Kosmos satellite? What kind of effect would that have on our daily lives? 

Think about our society and how much we depend on technology. What if it started to fail? If our satellites are attacked, who is there to see it? Only when mass technology failure occurs would we suspect that we are under attack. Televisions networks would no longer be able to broadcast, the internet would halt, ATMs would go down. Financial networks that depend on exact timing provided by GPS would freeze, and some traffic and railroad signals that also rely on GPS technology, would malfunction. Air traffic control, reliant on GPS and weather information from satellites in space, would cease to function. Even our power stations and water treatment plants would fail. 

Dependence on space technologies can leave us open to a devastating impact if those technologies are under attack. If space becomes a place where countries can assert dominance over one another, outer space is the next battlefield. 

US critical infrastructure sectors rely on strong space security.

Threats in space. 

Foreign competitors and adversaries can conduct electronic attacks to disrupt, deny, deceive or degrade space services by attacking the segments in space, on the ground, or through the user or the links themselves. 

  • One of the methods they use prevents users from receiving intended signals. Jamming can be accomplished by two primary methods, uplink jamming – directed toward the satellite – or downlink jamming, directed at the users on the ground.
  • Spoofing, making data or signals appear to be legitimate when they’re not, is another method used to attack. This could tragically hurt an operation when knowing the location of something or someone is the key to a successful mission. 

America cannot risk sitting idle. As General Raymond recently stated, “The United States, in coordination with our allies, is ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the Nation, our allies and vital U.S. interests from hostile acts in space.” 

With the increased use of these capabilities, now is the time for us all to rally to secure American space assets. Space security is paramount as a countermeasure to weapons in space. We must protect the communication between satellites and their ground stations and safeguard the satellites and the ground stations themselves. This is a whole new subset of security that is ripe for new ideas. 

Partnerships with academia: a way forward for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure.

As the Commandant of the National Cryptologic School (NCS) at the National Security Agency, I am passionately committed to enhancing education – especially cyber education. Whether it’s about our assets in space or our cyber networks, there are three key elements to success in the cybersecurity arena: Collaboration, Education, and Innovation. 

  • Collaboration 

Cybersecurity must be a team sport. We can and must confront this immense threat in cyberspace together. This means government, industry and academia must all share resources and threat information. 

  • Education 

Education is crucial in facing the cyber threat. Employers must ensure that their workforce is armed with the skills they need to defend space technologies. As cybersecurity threats constantly change, businesses need to invest in employee learning to keep up and stay ahead of our cyber adversaries. 

  • Innovation

The word innovation comes from the Latin word “Innovare,” which means “to renew or restore.” USA is the most innovative country in the world – and we’re eager to find the solutions. 

This is our new Sputnik moment America! There must be key focused investments in all cybersecurity and space security disciplines. Now, more than ever, the space security and cyber security realms intersect. With dedication and hard work, by collaborating, educating and innovating, we can keep our country safe. America: we got this!

About the author, and a disclaimer: Ms. Diane M. Janosek is a member of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service and is the National Security Agency’s Training Director and Commandant of the National Cryptologic School, comprised of the Colleges of Cyber and Cryptology. Ms. Janosek is a multiple award recipient receiving the 2020 Cyber Impact Award, Top 100 Women in Cybersecurity in 2020, CybHER 2020 Warrior award, and 2019 Cyber Warrior Woman of the Year. She is President of Women in Cybersecurity’s (WiCyS) Mid-Atlantic Regional Affiliate. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not represent the opinions of the Department of Defense.