NATO, the North American Treaty Organization, conducts missions all around the globe — on land, on the sea, in the air, and in cyberspace. The success of many of these missions is contingent on space-based architecture and systems — satellites and the Earth-based equipment that communicates with them.
Humanity has been using space for communication since Russia launched the first satellite — Sputnik 1 — in 1957. Today, there are thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth, but as technology has advanced, so to have the threats to this space-based communication.
Security experts have begun expressing concerns over inherent vulnerabilities in these systems. Let's take a closer look at NATO's space-based systems and where these vulnerabilities might lie.
The Growing Use of Satellites
Both the number and the uses for satellites in orbit around Earth are growing in number. There are currently 4,000 satellites orbiting the planet, with 1,800 operational and plans for thousands more in the future.
SpaceX's Starlink internet satellite constellation will consist of more than 12,000 CubeSats once it's complete. Military satellite applications are also on the rise. During the Iraq War between 2003 and 2011, military reliance on commercial satellites increased by 560%.
In the course of that same war, 68% of American munitions were guided by satellites or other space-based means. For comparison, only 10% of munitions were satellite-guided during the Gulf War in 1990-91.
NATO may utilize hundreds or even thousands of different satellites to complete their missions, but they don't own them, relying instead on commercial equipment that is already in orbit.
The Potential for Attack
Cyberwarfare is just as much a tool these days as physically shooting someone's satellite out of the sky. In June, Iranian forces took down a U.S. surveillance drone. The U.S. forces retaliated with a cyber strike that took out the country's command and controls computer system — the one that controls their rocket and missile launches.
This attack was described as a game-changer by many cyber security experts, one of the first times that cyber warfare has been used in active engagement.
The United States might have been the first to make that leap but they won't be the last. Iran might not have the technological sophistication to strike back with their own cyber attack, but that doesn't mean that other countries don't.
As NATO relies on commercial satellites to power critical systems, there is the potential that other countries — such as China or Russia — might exploit these vulnerabilities.
Protecting NATO's Space Systems
The United State's cyber strike against Iran is just the beginning. NATO and its allies need to take steps now to improve cybersecurity and protect the space-based systems that keep so much of this country's military running smoothly.
As it stands, NATO's cyber command isn't going to be ready or fully staffed until 2023, creating a window of opportunity for any country that has the tools to commit a cybercrime against NATO or any of its allied countries. The space-based systems that the organization relies so heavily on will be in jeopardy unless NATO steps up and improves it's cyber and space-based security.
Kayla Matthews tech journalist & writer