Why Australia must improve its cyber space defence capabilities

Author: Stephan Robin, University of Adelaide

As Australia becomes increasingly dependent on satellite infrastructure, the threat posed by cyberattacks in space must be consciously addressed as a national security priority.

For much of Australia’s history, distance has been its greatest defence from foreign powers. But in a world where nations use cyberwarfare to undermine strategic advantages, distance may now work to make Australia more vulnerable given its heavy reliance on satellites.

With the establishment of a domestic space agency in 2018, Australia’s extra-terrestrial ambitions have formed at a time of heightened awareness of the geopolitical realities. The post-Cold War dream of cooperation and strategic restraint in space has been firmly shattered in recent years, demonstrated by the fact that the International Space Station is set to be joined by exclusively Chinese, Indian and Russian stations by 2030.

This reality is seemingly not lost on the Australian government which announced the establishment of a space division within the Air Force in May. Other than the obvious mission of protecting Australian satellites through orbital domain awareness — which largely means tracking pieces of space junk — the other responsibilities of this new division remain shrouded in mystery.  Defence’s decision to conduct a Space Domain Review, due for completion by the end of 2021, suggests that the exact capabilities Australia needs to defensively operate in this area is still an open question.

Counterspace technologies typically fall into one of four categories — kinetic weapons, electromagnetic weapons, signal jamming and cyberattacks. The first three are reasonably conventional with well-established technologies, to the point where in 2015, the United States was unintentionally jamming its own communication satellites an average of once every two days. Cyberattacks on the other hand are particularly singular in the threat they pose, and in the case of satellites, are capable of simultaneously exploiting two distinct vulnerabilities.

Australia is utterly dependent on satellites for many of its day-to-day operations, especially given the country’s large size that necessitates satellite coverage to monitor and communicate over vast distances. These include supplying key military intelligence, connecting Australia’s remote interior, underpinning economic productivity, improving water and resource management. There are few sectors in Australia that would be unaffected by even a temporary disruption to our satellite network.

Compared to other anti-satellite technology, cyberattacks are more readily deployable with less resource investment, and they often avoid international fallout by allowing states to maintain deniability. They also have the capability to target an entire network at once as opposed to a single satellite. For these reasons, former chief of the Australian National University Cyber Institute Lesley Seebeck described cyberattacks as ‘the most immediate threat to our critical infrastructure and the biggest threat to our government and security’.

And Australia’s reliance on satellite technology is only growing. For example, next year, Queensland based company Fireball will begin the launch of their bushfire detection constellation of satellites, capable of detecting fires anywhere in Australia mere minutes after ignition. This would allow firefighters to quickly extinguish the blaze before it turns into the sort of devastating bushfires that were seen in the 2019-2020 Black Summer that killed 479 people and had a projected national cost of over $100 billion. As Australian authorities grow used to the early warning provided by such technologies, a well timed cyberattack that disables these satellites would completely undermine Australia’s ability to prevent a repeat of these wildfires. This could cause us tremendous environmental, economic and societal harm while allowing the belligerent state to avoid international retaliation.

What is most worrying is that such a cyberattack has occurred before. In 2011 a US commission reported that hackers, believed to be connected with Beijing, in 2008 bypassed all security systems of two NASA climate research satellites and were in a position to take complete control of the satellites. Though the hackers did not execute any commands, US space assets were firmly under the control of foreign actors for several minutes.

Cyberwarfare has grown more nuanced and prolific since 2008, but there have been few reports of similar incidents of satellite cyber seizure. While this could be interpreted as indicating a diminishing cyberthreat to satellites, it could also suggest that the threat is progressing with more discretion. Given recent heightened global tensions coupled with a clear preference for covert hostilities, the latter interpretation seems far more likely.

The five operational domains of warfare are not equal. Space encompasses the land, sea and air, and cyber permeates them all. To protect Australia and its national interests, defensive space capabilities are needed. Although Australia is a few years behind in this realisation according to Air Marshal Hupfeld, it is a reassuring sign that a dedicated space division within defence is being formed. But to ensure the reliable operation of Australia’s current and future space assets, there must be an awareness of the importance of proactively extending our cybersecurity concerns beyond our atmosphere.

Stephan Robin is a final year undergraduate studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide. He is currently interning with the Office of the South Australian Chief Entrepreneur and assisting with research at the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing.