Securing our satellites before they are launched

Cybersecurity must be baked into military satellites during the design phase.

We depend on our space assets much more than most people realize. Television, radio, cell phone, long-distance calling and navigation are the most commonly known services that rely on our satellites. Other common applications are the environmental monitoring and weather-monitoring capabilities that help farmers and alert all of us about severe weather. These assets are expensive, with some satellites costing more than $250 million. Typically, these complex systems have an operational life expectancy of 10 to15 years.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists database, there are approximately 1,071 operational satellites currently in orbit around Earth. That total includes 24 types of data for each satellite. Of these, 459 (46 percent) belong to the United States. The great majority of these satellites have non-military use while less than 100 have mixed uses. An even smaller number are military satellites.

Cyberattacks that target U.S. space-based assets have occurred. Two of the more significant instances took place in 2007 and 2008 when attackers interfered with satellite command and control signals. A recent report release in conjunction with the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill, calls for "every critical system" -- including "satellites and missile defense systems" -- to be assessed for vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cyberattackers. The Defense Science Board warned in a January report that the Defense Department’s networked systems and components have become “a magnet to U.S. opponents,” cautioning that if left unaddressed, this vulnerability would threaten core U.S. warfighting capabilities.

Every satellite component that provides a critical capability to the U.S. military and economy must be re-examined to ensure they can withstand the growing threat of increasing sophisticated and persistent cyberattacks. That will require a fundamental change in our security approach that will require space warriors to become more proactive when it comes to critical space assets.

That means designing security into the next generation of military satellites rather that addressing cybersecurity as an add-on in the later stages of development.