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Space Wars Will Be Fought With Hacks, Not Missiles

We depend on space systems for everything from making a phone call to deploying a warhead, and these systems are increasingly vulnerable to hacking.
Image: NASA.

On Monday morning, a number of professionals in the aerospace industry received a rather mundane email containing a PDF ostensibly about the future of Russian aerospace programs, but which actually contained a 'Komplex' trojan.

The Komplex trojan works by connecting the user's computer to a remote command and control server, a centralized computer that issues commands to a botnet. Although nothing malicious has happened in connection with the Komplex virus yet, this could change should the hackers responsible for the virus (believed to be the Sofacy Group, an infamous cyberespionage collective) choose to send commands through this server to be executed on the infected computers.


The Sofacy Group's chosen target—the aerospace industry—is instructive, insofar as it speaks to the growing vulnerability of space systems in the information age. To address this issue, a panel of security experts convened at the International Astronautical Congress on Friday morning to discuss cyber-vulnerabilities particular to the space sector and how to protect it against hacking.

"Space and cyberspace are gradually becoming fields of warfare very much equivalent to land, sea and air," said Deganit Paikowsky, a space policy researcher at Tel Aviv University. "We're talking about new domains of conducting war in the information age. If you have space dominance, you can fight more efficiently on and off the battlefield."

It didn't take long for the US Armed Forces to realize the value of space technology on the battlefield, and in 1985 it created the United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) to figure out how to leverage outer space for use in military operations. Soon thereafter, the US military was able to put its space division to the test during the first Gulf War.

In 1991, a US-led coalition began a bombing campaign against Iraq in response to the country's invasion of Kuwait. During this campaign the US military relied heavily on space systems (particularly GPS) for intelligence and guiding weapons to their intended targets. The invasion of Iraq turned out to be a proving ground for the military use of space technologies, and they would continue to be heavily and successfully used during other US military campaigns throughout the 90s in places like Afghanistan and the Balkans.


Today, the use of space tech for military ends is pretty much a given: they guide US predator missiles, coordinate drone strikes, and allow officers to remotely surveil an area from dozens of miles up. For an idea of just how reliant the military has become on space tech, the US army has about 250,000 GPS-dependent systems in total.

The only difference is that the US is no longer the sole power leveraging space for military ends—other spacefaring nations have also seen the strategic value of space systems. This threat to the United States' total dominance in space has led to talk about an impending space war among the military elite. The thinking is that if you can achieve dominance in orbit, you will always have dominance on terrestrial battlefields.

According to Paikowsky, the form this space war is likely to take won't involve the exploding satellites imagined by Reagan. Instead, the space wars of the future will be waged in cyberspace, which will be used to exploit and compromise internet connected space technology. The reason, she said, is simple: kinetic warfare (using Anti-Satellite Missiles to blow stuff up in orbit) generates a ton of debris and makes space unusable for everybody—including the aggressor.

"Not using kinetic attacks is a question of sustainability and safety of the space environment," said Paikowsky. "Cyber attacks are becoming much more likely to be used against space systems if a country still wants to be considered a responsible player."

Aside from the symbolic factor of attacking a nation's space assets in cyberspace, there is the added benefit that these attacks can be carried out without ever having to come face to face with the enemy. The issue is that because space technologies are inherently dual-use (meaning they can be used by both civil and military entities), an attack on a country's space assets may end up inadvertently damaging civil satellites instead of military satellites.

This threat to civil space tech, along with previous instances where space assets have been compromised (like when a cosmonaut accidentally brought a computer virus to the International Space Station on a USB stick) has led space agencies to begin ramping up their internal cybersecurity divisions to deal with the growing threat of political or military space hacking.

A prime example is the European Space Agency's development of a cybersecurity range in Redu, a small village in Luxembourg. Here the ESA will train employees how to recognize and deal with cyberattacks in realistic simulations. The program was launched in February and will be ready to begin training sessions later this month.

"Space systems are symbols of national power and this makes them appealing targets," said Paikowsky. "Harmful activity is to be expected in the intersection between cyber and space."