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Ground stations and other communications links can serve as a conduit for attacks on satellites, a realm where space security and cybersecurity overlap. (credit: Wikimapia)

Governance challenges at the intersection of space and cyber security

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The disruption of capabilities that space assets provide would have immediate, far-reaching and devastating economic, political, and geostrategic consequences. Over the past two decades, space vulnerabilities have grown dramatically in a manner commensurate with terrestrial dependency on space-based capabilities and enablers. This is true for both civilian and military activities. Purposeful interference with space systems could rather easily trigger a retaliatory spiral of actions that could compromise a safe and secure operating environment in space. Accordingly, having available a range of measures to prevent or preempt an incident, or even full-up conflict, is of rapidly growing importance to an increasing number of countries.

Space-dependent civilian governments are wise to be seeking new ways to engage in serious international discussions concerning how best to ensure responsible behavior in these two connected domains.

The interruption of space services through a cyber attack could involve large, and possibly very complex, knock-on effects. As the space and cyberspace domains are linked operationally—space cannot exist without cyber and cyber, in some cases, without space—and they permeate all other warfighting domains (i.e. land, air, and sea), cyber-related vulnerabilities of space assets are a major concern. Global effects would be virtually instantaneous.

Given these realities, space-dependent civilian governments are wise to be seeking new ways to engage in serious international discussions concerning how best to ensure responsible behavior in these two connected domains. Meanwhile, space-dependent militaries are, to varying degrees, bracing themselves for the worst by the establishment of crisis management mechanisms to address fast-moving security threats emanating from cyber-related vulnerabilities embedded in space systems and operations. In some cases, this mechanism includes taking proper account of growing government dependency on commercial providers as key parts of both military and civilian missions.

This essay examines various dimensions of space crisis management related to the vulnerabilities at the intersection of space and cyberspace. It reviews how the space and cyberspace domains interact and, later, focuses on counterspace threats to space assets and operations stemming from their dependency on cyberspace. It then assesses the present discourse concerning governance issues related to these domains. Finally, it offers several considerations for more effective crisis management preparedness and concludes that configuring transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs), in combination with the prospect of robust, and often asymmetric, responses to crises, provide the proper ingredients to construct a common critical path for the management of militarily-sensitive space situations/incidents.

The interaction of space and cyber domains

Delineating the multi-faceted interaction of the inherently global space and cyberspace domains can help detect space-related cyberspace vulnerabilities and configure the proper level of preparedness and responses should purposeful disruption of space operations occur. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) describes cyberspace as “systems and services connected either directly to or indirectly to the internet, telecommunications and computer networks.”1 Cyberspace encompasses the hardware, software, data, and information systems, as well as people and social interaction within the networks and the whole infrastructure.2

Space systems include not only the satellites themselves, but also the ground stations that operate and control them, and the links between them. Ground stations monitor and control satellites, as well as communicate with the satellite. Telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) is part of the uplink and downlink controlling a satellite’s function and monitoring its health.3

As evident from the above, space operations are entirely cyberspace dependent. In other words, space capabilities cannot be employed without cyberspace. Operators use specialized computers and computer programs—themselves complex information systems—to transmit information to and from spacecraft over a computer network.4 The U.S. military doctrine regarding cyberspace, the Joint Publication (JP) 3-12 (R), describes several layers of cyberspace relevance to space operations: the physical network layer (i.e., the information systems, the circuits, the ground equipment, and space vehicles); the logical network layer (embedded in each piece of the physical layer, e.g. encryption or decryption of transmission, changing configurations, sending commands, etc.); and the cyber-persona layer (i.e., space operators who rely on the physical and logical network layers). It also highlights that a “critical portion of cyberspace can only be provided by space operations.”5

As mentioned above, the interconnectedness of space and cyberspace is not only a military concern. The now-popular term “Internet of Things” (IoT) describes a concept of connecting any device that has an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other), ranging from cell phones and washing machines to the drill of an oil rig. Some estimate that by 2020, there will be more than 26 billion connected device—which could be a conservative estimate.6

The choice to be part of this enormous network of connected devices has far-reaching implications concerning issues of vulnerability and the ability to mitigate them. Since space operators conduct cyber-dependent missions, they need to better understand not only their environment, but also the multiplicity of new threats that they must manage because of this coming IoT reality. The private sector is arguably better prepared operationally to face this new way of life as they are at the forefront of information technology development.7 It is in the purview of governments, however, to ensure proper space governance. Hopefully, this establishes a logical basis for an intensified and expanded public-private sector partnership concerning the cyber threats to space operations.

Such modes of attack are attractive as they can be conducted from anywhere, do not require special hardware, and the perpetrators can more easily hide their identity.

The dual-use nature of both cyber and space technologies complicates this calculus further. The ties between non-military and military cyberspace applications, as well as the use of commercial space assets for military operations, blur the line between strictly civilian or military usage. Commercial software, for example, can be used to affect a country’s critical infrastructure. Cyber-related vulnerabilities to space operations and services can, therefore, manifest themselves in often-unexpected ways.

For example, an attack on location and timing information from a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) may not be a result of jamming or spoofing of the system itself, but could be the result of the exploitation of the network-accessible systems. Accordingly, even if the GNSS receiver is working properly, the data can be false or otherwise compromised. Basically, any component of an integrated system can be manipulated, especially if it is connected to a network. Such modes of attack are attractive as they can be conducted from anywhere, do not require special hardware, and the perpetrators can more easily hide their identity.8

This reality makes it virtually impossible to employ traditional arms control approaches, including its verification aspects, for the governance of either domain, as it is how these technologies are used, rather than the technologies themselves, that needs to be addressed. Accordingly, in this uncertain, complex security environment, TCBMs stand out as an important policy tool in preserving global security, including in space.

Cyber as a counterspace tool

An attack on a space asset through cyberspace has many advantages over a kinetic attack, not least of which is that it offers plausible deniability in some cases, or can be masked as defensive even if conducted for offensive purposes. Implementing redundancy, backups, and design alternatives in constellations can, of course, help reduce vulnerability to a single component, but not the whole system.9

Continuous innovation and transformation of information technology creates an unmatched set of challenges in configuring their adequate defenses for both civilian and military space operators. Part of the problem is the difficulty associated with detecting and attributing an adversary action to its source. Even the US, which has arguably the most advanced thinking concerning cyber warfare—signing an information warfare directive in 1992 (DoDD TS 3600.1) and the first doctrine on “information warfare” in early 199610— struggles to configure proper safeguards.

The JP 3-12(R) referenced in the previous section clarifies that cyberspace operations are not a subset of information operations and perform three types of missions: offensive (projecting power by the application of force in and through cyberspace); defensive (defending US Department of Defense or other friendly cyberspace); and Department of Defense information networks (DODIN) operations. Offensive missions are authorized like all “operations in the physical domains, via an execute order.” Defensive missions can be either passive or active, and can even create effects outside DoD networks that “rise to the level of use of force”.11 DODIN operations are all actions that “create and preserve data availability, integrity, confidentiality, as well as user/entity authentication and non-repudiation.12 The commander conducts these missions using four basic kinds of cyberspace actions: cyberspace defense,13 cyberspace attack,14 cyberspace ISR,15 and cyberspace operational preparation of the environment.16,17

As evident from the above, the US is acutely aware that its high dependence on space and cyberspace is exposing it to asymmetric risks of disruption. Back in 2001, NASA highlighted in its audit report that six computer servers associated with IT assets that control spacecraft and had critical data contained vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a remote attacker.18 If we look at China, for example, space capabilities enable the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to project military power to, and through, space. The PLA operates many of China’s satellites and all terrestrial launch and support facilities. Civilian space applications are integrated into the country’s more important military goals and strategies.19 The most recent report by the Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission concluded that China continues to develop a robust and comprehensive array of counterspace capabilities.20

Cyber attacks against satellite computer systems are of priority concern. The PLA understands, having observed US military operations, that information-related technologies, including those space-based, are of unique importance to warfighting.21 Cyber capabilities designed to achieve information dominance accomplished through counter-command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) operations, are carefully examined.22 Space-to-ground communications links and ground-based satellite control facilities also represent attractive targets for cyber exploitation.

An overarching architecture for space and cyberspace governance has to cover both commercial and military activities and account for their global, strategic, and dual-use nature.

Cyber attacks by China against US systems have been periodically reported (with many remaining classified), including against the command and control system of Landsat 7 in 2007 and 2008, and Terra in 2008.23 The 2015 congressional report referenced above stated that hackers tied to China were likely behind a number of computer attacks against US space assets, including a September 2014 hack of a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite and weather service systems.24

It is evident that access to a satellite’s controls could enable an attacker to damage or even destroy the satellite. The attacker could likewise deny, degrade, or otherwise manipulate the satellite’s transmission. High-level access could reveal the satellite’s capabilities or other information. Terrestrial or space-based networks can also be spied upon, or compromised, by a cyber attacker.

It is not just the major space powers that are vulnerable to cyber attacks. A German ROSAT satellite was exposed to a cyber attack against the Goddard NASA Center computer in September 1998, which caused it to orient itself toward the Sun eventually causing its shutdown. An alleged attack by Russia (never officially confirmed) happened against India’s telecommunications satellite, INSAT-4B-S.25 In short, any country that relies heavily on satellites, including European countries, India, and Japan, is exposed to these risks.

A stovepiped space systems-related defense would be ineffective, as a disruption could merely be a cyber intrusion in the information chain itself, such as data collection, processing, and dissemination, without affecting satellites yet with severe consequences.26 The US Air Force, therefore, considered it proper to consolidate space and cyberspace domains under one command.27

Governance aspects

An overarching architecture for space and cyberspace governance has to cover both commercial and military activities and account for their global, strategic, and dual-use nature, as well as their dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum and IT infrastructure.

Russia and China are at the forefront of promoting an arms control approach in the space domain. The notion they advance is that if countries do not engage in space arms control, the world will face unrestricted “weaponization.” This premise is difficult to accept, however, as space security in not a zero-sum game and targeted counterspace tool development and use, rather than an unrestricted one, to gain asymmetric advantages, has been underway for decades.

The prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) has been on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) since 1985. In addition, Russia and China jointly presented a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) in February 2008, and a revised version in June 2014. The PPWT construct has been jointly sponsored and marketed by these two countries since 2002.

Interestingly, an integral, legally-binding verification regime for effectively monitoring compliance has not been included. Moreover, Russia pledged at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee in October 2004 “not to be the first to place weapons of any kind in outer space.” In 2014, Russia proposed such an approach at the UNGA First Committee in a Resolution on “No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space.”28 This initiative is also aimed at supporting the draft PPWT treaty.

The “no first placement,” PAROS, and PPWT initiatives are now being pursued proactively by Russia and China, while these same countries are increasing their offensive military space capabilities. This, however, does not prevent a number of UN countries to reflexively sign up to these proposed arms control schemes.

Russia and China took a different approach concerning cyber. They introduced a draft International Code of Conduct for Information Security (Cyber Code of Conduct) to the UN in 2011 (with an updated version introduced in January 2015), ostensibly to mitigate cyberspace conflict. The issue is, however, that the proposal mentions “information weapon,” which is another term for a restraint on free speech (a new version talks about “not using information and communication technologies to carry out hostile activities or acts of aggression.”) The US and Europe are instead using the term “cyberspace security.”

Besides “information security,” the Code also discusses the principle of sovereignty in cyberspace, which could both be interpreted as allowing for censorship and state control over the Internet.29 Although seemingly nuances, they are of great importance when countries with differing views on security concepts such as the US, Russia, and China, are trying to find common ground. This reality argues for behavioral restrictions, rather than technology-related ones.

For space, the European Union proposed a different kind of Code of Conduct (the latest version of which is dated March 31, 2014) that promotes behavioral norms to prevent irresponsible behavior. The EU has taken the approach that, without active space diplomacy, incidents and even conflicts involving the space domain are highly probable. In an environment of growing geopolitical tensions, however, the negotiations over the final version of the Code have slowed significantly—possibly even terminally.

Other initiatives related to TCBMs, including the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) Scientific and Technical Subcommittee’s Working Group on Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities, and implementation of a consensus report of July 2013 by the Group of Governmental Experts on TCBMs for Outer Space Activities, are, therefore, of great importance in helping advance space security in the long run.

TCBMs are also promoted in the context of cyberspace security, including in the reports of the Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications of 2010, 2013, and 2015. The latest consensus report (A/70/172) recommends behavioral rules, principles, and confidence-building measures in cyberspace. The Group recommended that states cooperate to prevent harmful ICT practices and should not knowingly allow their territory to be used for internationally wrongful acts using ICT, while respecting human rights, privacy, and freedom of expression.30

International norm-building efforts in the areas of space and cyberspace reveal that the concerns of potential conflict in, and stemming from, these domains have already reached senior political levels.

Besides the UN, other organizations, including OECD, OSCE, NATO, and ASEAN, actively seek to configure proper governance procedures for the cyber domain. The OSCE, for example, agreed in December 2013 on a set of TCBMs aimed at reducing the risks of conflict stemming from the use of information and communication technologies. The Council of Europe, with the participation of Canada, Japan, South Africa, and the US, elaborated the 2004 Convention on Cybercrime (the so-called “Budapest Convention”), a multilateral treaty designed to address cybercrime matters and serve as a model for drafting national legislation.

International norm-building efforts in the areas of space and cyberspace reveal that the concerns of potential conflict in, and stemming from, these domains have already reached senior political levels. Granted, TCBMs for both domains are only politically binding, not legally, and their success is therefore based on the premise of good will and voluntarism of states. Nevertheless, they represent a good foundation in trying to configure boundaries of what is permissible—a useful preventive tool and a barometer of political and diplomatic relations.

Real contingencies are also being discussed. When a cyberattack might be considered an armed attack by another state is, for example, discussed in the “Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyberwarfare” published in 2013. Issues that are difficult to address in these instruments are related to hostilities that are not ostensibly taking place under the direction of a state, namely the issue of attribution.31

Accordingly, situational awareness is required not only to operate effectively in space and cyberspace, but also to safeguard these domains and respond quickly to any contingencies. Yet, situational awareness in these domains is most challenging: in space because of the requirement to cover some 73 trillion cubic miles, and in cyber because of the nature of the domain itself and its less-well-understood vulnerabilities.32

Accordingly, the establishment of strong communication links between relevant authorities, including hotlines, exchanges of information concerning policies and doctrines, and regular dialogues among decision-makers, remain the foundational TCBMs that states use to better understand each other and prevent misperceptions and miscalculations. At the same time, the ties between space and cyberspace require expanded contingency planning if the essential services offered by these domains are to be protected and preserved over the long haul.

Crisis management considerations

The intersection of space and cyberspace is an integral component of broader security and foreign policy considerations in every space-dependent country. Crisis management related to this intersection must track the ever-changing nature of operational capabilities, and ensure the availability of effective organizational structures to facilitate sound processes for various contingencies. Should a serious incident occur, there would likely be little time for “dress rehearsals.”

Internationally, it is important to not only establish norms of responsible behavior, but also gain agreement on clear procedures to deal with escalatory spirals and other eventualities. While such a set of universal rules might prove elusive (as every situation will likely require a tailor-made solution), it remains a valuable exercise, particularly if substantial penalties are discussed for violators. For that to happen in an effective manner, however, the toolbox must be defined and readily at hand.

Considerations when building the proper instruments include:

National Considerations

  • Establishment of a mechanism to acquire common 24/7 situational awareness;
  • Education of space operators to understand cyberspace-related threats;
  • Building collaborative arrangements between the space and cyberspace operators;
  • Building a dossier of possible space vulnerabilities stemming from cyberspace and their possible impacts, including potential for escalation;
  • Understanding strategic-level implications of different contingencies;
  • Configuration of smooth interaction among the relevant government authorities and commercial and other actors to enable rapid reaction to unexpected events and shaping proper defenses and damage control;
  • Ensuring political level preparedness through the establishment of a link between the operationally responsible entities and government authorities responsible for space security;
  • Practicing national table-top exercises that involve government, commercial, and NGO representatives to test how a comprehensive picture with possible political, economic, and social impacts, can be created in the event of “incidents”;
  • Understanding the benefits and challenges of establishing a separate “cyber command” within existing military and intelligence structures.

International Considerations

  • Discussion of possibilities of including a cyber operating picture into the current efforts to construct shared space situational awareness;
  • Engaging in joint table-top exercises with key space partners that address electromagnetic spectrum threats;
  • Organizing exchanges among and between government and commercial entities concerning various approaches to crisis management related to cyber threats (including detection, classification, and risk assessment) for space operators;
  • Determining how to mutually reinforce efforts in various international organizations, including the UN, the OSCE, NATO, and the OECD.


As it would not be feasible to reduce the world’s heavy, and increasing, dependence on space and cyberspace, the security of these domains stand equal with other national and international security considerations. The priority attention that safeguarding these domains has attracted internationally create a window of opportunity to formulate foundational governance concepts based on realistic, operational considerations and, at international level, a large (if incomplete) consensus.

Such collaboration is key as intentional acts against space assets, including those stemming from cyberspace, could jeopardize space stability systemically.

A good start would be to find ways how to marry TCBMs with mature crisis management. The former can serve as a practical tool for bilateral, regional, and global collaboration, while the latter acts as a necessary contingency should the identified rules of the road be violated. The implications of increasingly sophisticated counterspace systems in the hands of less-responsible actors are simply too far-reaching to ignore or minimize.

Acknowledging that actual capability will be developed by each state separately, the opportunities for political-level collaboration should be seized to develop a common critical path to manage militarily sensitive space situations. Such collaboration is key as intentional acts against space assets, including those stemming from cyberspace, could jeopardize space stability systemically.


  1. “ITU National Cybersecurity Strategy Guide”.
  2. Martti Lehto. “Phenomena in the Cyber World” in Cyber Security Analytics, Technology and Automation, Martti Lehto and Pekka Neittaanmaki. Springer International Publishing Switzerland (2015), p.6.
  3. David Wright, Laura Grego and Lisbeth Gronlund. “The Physics of Space Security: A Reference Manual”, American Acedemy of Arts and Sciences (2005), pp.109-115.
  4. 2nd Lt Chris Babcock. “Preparing for the Cyber Battleground of the Future”. Air and Space Power Journal (November-December 2015), p. 62.
  5. Joint Publication (JP) 3-12 (R), Cyberspace Operations (5 February 2013), v-vi and I-2.
  6. Jacob Morgan, “A Simple Explanation of ‘The Internet of Things’.” Forbes (May 13, 2014.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Logan Scott, “Spoofs, Proofs and Jamming”. Inside GNSS (September/October 2013). Accessed on Dec 12, 2015.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Joint Doctrine for Command and Control Warfare (C2W), Joint Publication 3-13.1, Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, Department of the Airforce (7 February 1996). Accessed on Nov 10, 2015.
  11. Joint Publication (JP) 3-12 (R), Cyberspace Operations (5 February 2013), II-2 and II-3.
  12. Ibid., vii.
  13. Actions that protect, detect, characterize, counter, and mitigate DoD Information Network. Joint Publication (JP) 3-12 (R), Cyberspace Operations (5 February 2013), II-2 and II-4
  14. Denying, degrading, disrupting, destroying, and manipulating actions (Joint Publication (JP) 3-12 (R), Cyberspace Operations (5 February 2013), II-5)
  15. An intelligence action that includes ISR activities in cyberspace conducted to gather intelligence that may be required to support future operations, including offensive and defensive cyberspace operations. (Joint Publication (JP) 3-12 (R), Cyberspace Operations (5 February 2013), II-5)
  16. Non-intelligence enabling activities conducted to plan and prepare for potential follow-on military operations (Joint Publication (JP) 3-12 (R), Cyberspace Operations (5 February 2013), II-5)
  17. Michael Warner, “Notes on Military Doctrine for Cyberspace Operations in the United States, 1992-2014”, The Cyber Defense Review (August 27, 2015), accessed on 14 October 2015.
  18. Xavier Pasco. “Various Threats of Space Systems” in Handbook of Space Security, Kai-Uwe Schrogl & al., eds., Springer (2015), p. 673.
  19. 2008 Report to Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington: US Government Printing Office, November 2008, p. 160.
  20. 2015 Report to Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington: US Government Printing Office, November 2015, p.284.
  21. Dean Cheng. “Chinese Concepts of Space Security” in Handbook of Space Security, Springer (2015), pp. 431–448.
  22. Cortez A. Cooper. “Chinese Perceptions of and Strategic Response to Threats in Cyberspace” in China and Cybersecurity: Political, Economic and Strategic Dimensions. University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (April 2012), p.8–9, accessed on Dec 12, 2015.
  23. 2011 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, U.S. Government Printing Office (2011), pp. 215-217. accessed on Dec 12, 2015.
  24. 2015 Report to Congress of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington: US Government Printing Office, November 2015, p.296.
  25. Xavier Pasco. “Various Threats of Space Systems” in Handbook of Space Security, Kai-Uwe Schrogl & al., eds., Springer (2015), p. 673¬674.
  26. Ibid., p. 674.
  27. General John E. Hyten, USAF, “An Airman’s Story”, The Air and Space Power Journal (November-December 2015), p. 9.
  28. Since 2005, some other countries also formally accepted this policy, including, for example, Argentina, Armenia, Belarus, Brazil, Cuba, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan
  29. “An Updated Draft of the Code of Conduct Distributed in the United Nations – What’s New?” NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, Tallinn, Estonia (10 February 2015).
  30. “UN Group of Governmental Experts: Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security”, Council on Foreign Relations (22 July 2015).
  31. Myriam Dunn Cavelty, “The Normalization of Cyber-International Relations”, ETH Zurich, Switzerland (3 April 2015).
  32. General John E. Hyten, USAF, “An Airman’s Story”, The Air and Space Power Journal (November-December 2015), p. 8.