Cybersecurity of NATO’s space-based strategic assets


This report from the UK think tank Chatham House evaluates the threats, vulnerabilities and consequences of cyber risks to strategic systems.

All satellites depend on cyber technology including software, hardware and other digital components. Any threat to a satellite’s control system or available bandwidth poses a direct challenge to national critical assets. NATO’s missions and operations are conducted in the air, land, cyber and maritime domains. Space-based architecture is fundamental to the provision of data and services in each of these contexts. The critical dependency on space has resulted in new cyber risks that disproportionately affect mission assurance. Investing in mitigation measures and in the resilience of space systems for the military is key to achieving protection in all domains.

Almost all modern military engagements rely on space-based assets. During the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 68 per cent of US munitions were guided utilizing space-based means (including laser-, infrared- and satellite-guided munitions); up sharply from 10 per cent in 1990–91, during the first Gulf war. In 2001, 60 per cent of the weapons used by the US in Afghanistan were precision-guided munitions, many of which had the capability to use information provided by space-based assets to correct their own positioning to hit a target. NATO does not own satellites. It owns and operates a few terrestrial elements, such as satellite communications anchor stations and terminals. It requests access to products and services – such as space weather reports and satellite overflight reports provided via satellite reconnaissance advance notice systems – but does not have direct access to satellites: it is up to individual NATO member states to determine whether they allow access. Cyber vulnerabilities undermine confidence in the performance of strategic systems. As a result, rising uncertainty in information and analysis continues to impact the credibility of deterrence and strategic stability. Loss of trust in technology also has implications for determining the source of a malicious attack (attribution), strategic calculus in crisis decision-making and may increase the risk of misperception.

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