Outer Space Needs Cyber Shield

Outer Space Needs Cyber ShieldAuthor Article by Lt Gen (Dr) PJS Pannu, former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff  

Recent and ongoing global conflicts are seeing a rapid shift towards technological dependency in Warfare. The two domains of warfare, the Space and the Cyber have contributed to the ability where military tech-power is leading the current discourse in conflict. The use of outer space in war has a notable impact on battlefield transparency, speed, reach, and accuracy. Space-based long-range missiles, drones, and aerial platforms have made skies vulnerable to top attacks. Nations with advanced space infrastructure have an edge over the adversarial military forces through prompt detection, recognition, identification, and target acquisition that makes them beat the opponent’s decision cycle. The ‘ear on the surface and eye in the sky’ is a lethal blend. 

As compared to the number of nations who have developed Space capabilities, there are many more nations that have developed Cyber capabilities – the rogue states are also ahead in this field. This capability gap makes it easy to conclude that there is a potential threat to space-faring nations from their cyber-armed adversaries. Similarly, nations that have both Space and Cyber capabilities are also using space for cyber strikes. This makes Cyber a very potent domain in warfare- also called the fifth frontier.

Once the bullseye is locked on the “weakest spot” in the space infrastructure of the target country, the deterrence is loaded with a threat to devastate and achieve a particular military or political outcome. In recent years, attacks targeting critical infrastructure and businesses have surged. These include the 2017 WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware attacks, the 2015 attack on Ukrainian power grids and the 2010 Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear reactors. The recent attack on SpaceX by LockBit is noteworthy. The systems that are earmarked as ‘high security networks’ are classified as critical infrastructure and given top priority in Cyber Security. Unfortunately, space assets are not classified for such priority.  Since space is all pervasive and ubiquitous in application, it has far too many critical elements that go beyond typical classification. Also, the Space networks lie in open spectrum. Therefore, space infrastructure that has a global spread needs a cyber shield. China has launched a Quantum satellite using QKD (Quantum Key Distribution) encryption to secure space communications. China is sending survey ships into the Indian Ocean for sensing the Indian vulnerabilities. Such actions of China support their ‘Boiling frog strategy’ – to get the adversary used to measured belligerence and push them to gradual defeat.

Space and Cyber are known as the fourth and fifth domains of warfare. Both these domains when added to the first three primary domains i.e., Land, Sea and Air power, add on to become five domains of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) with cohesive operational centricity.  Till the time the Army, Navy and Airforce remained confined within their respective domains, there was not much to worry about as it was convenient to maintain protection of networks through isolation.  Similarly, when the space emerged as the new turf in the 1950’s it also remained confined within its domain; remained isolated and secure. Soon enough the space programs began running military communications and terrestrial observation for deeper and better Communications and provide Intelligence introducing the lexicon C3-I and further expanding into C3-I2 (Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, and interoperability) where the Command and Control of the forces was possible over larger distances and wider areas and territories. It was now possible to connect arrayed forces and make them interoperable. With the advent and introduction of Computers (the fourth ‘C’) the terminology extended to C4-I2. This gave birth to the introduction of smarter systems with high power of computing and communicating through the internet. The shift of millennia has brought in Cyber (the fifth ‘C’) to integrate the early combine and defined as CEMA (Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities) that exploits Electronic Warfare, Cyber and Security capabilities to deliver information advantage in multi-domain operations. Today, we are near achieving the C5-I2-STAR2, (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber – Intelligence, Interoperability – Surveillance, Target Acquisition. Reconnaissance, and Robotics), which is capable of meshed intelligence and operations. The web so created is now making it possible to interlink terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks making processes faster but complex. The complexity is best handled through effective Central and/or Distributed Command and Control.

Cyber Warfare, has emerged as the fastest growing domain of war and acts as a silent killer (Non-Contact/ Non- Kinetic). It can create a web kill chain that is more devastating than the physical or analog kill chains. It has the ability to penetrate the networks undetected. It utilizes the backdoor of systems and hides into the critical components such as chips, hardware and software. It can impersonate, choke, or chew up the C2 systems.  Cyber assaults have the ability to take down any of the first four frontiers when inter-connected. Similarly, cyber web, if configured well through technology, processes and policies has the ability to protect the first four domains – providing wholesome protection, like a cyber shield. 

Cyber Shield goes beyond conventional cyber security. The shield benchmarks must be the highest in regulations, standards, discipline, and architecture. The space domain is sensitive and the space community must be cyber-capable and proficient to qualify for ‘Space-Cyber Shield’ needs.  It is imperative for the nation to take a call on building cyber resilient space standards. This would need special skill sets, infrastructure, and certification in supply chains, designing and manufacturing. The Indian armed forces are rapidly modernizing and integrating for MDO. The nation is increasingly opening up to privatization while transiting beyond Industry 4.0 standards. The Armed Forces are incrementally collaborating with foreign forces. The Space and Cyber domains are global in nature. Both domains have two spheres, national and international. Both spheres need a well-built a cyber shield. 

Author: Lt Gen (Dr) PJS Pannu, is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He pioneered the raising of Defence Space Agency, Defence Cyber Agency and Armed Forces Special Forces Division. He is currently Senior advisor to Satcom Industry Association [SIA-India] and FICCI chair for ICT modernization for Defence. He is also a National Cyber Security Scholar for ISAC. He has a doctorate on Indigenization of Defence Industry.  His views are personal.

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