February 27, 2024

IntelBrief: Great Power Competition Goes to Space

AP Photo/John Raoux, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The White House released a report on Monday highlighting the urgent need to proactively reduce the attack surface in cyberspace, including in the space ecosystem, which requires robust investment in research regarding the use of specific memory-safe software languages in space use cases.
  • As space technologies increasingly enable daily life, ensuring the long-term sustainability of Earth orbit for various uses has become a crucial priority, with nations and international bodies concentrating on formulating strategies and policies to regulate space activities.
  • The commercialization of space by companies like SpaceX and the materialization of great power competition in space by the U.S., China, and Russia have made space security a complex, multilayered issue.
  • As rapid technological advancements such as robotic arms and hypersonic maneuver missiles allow for complex offensive capabilities, U.S. policy needs to reflect that space is a pivotal area of national security.

On Monday, the White House released “Back to the Building Blocks: A Path Toward Secure and Measurable Software,” a new paper highlighting the urgent need to proactively reduce the attack surface in cyberspace. In the report, special attention is paid to the unique vulnerabilities posed by software in the space ecosystem. While the paper calls for the overall reduction of the attack surface in cyberspace by moving rapidly to memory safe programming languages – programming languages that protect against bugs and vulnerabilities from being introduced to how memory is used – several constraints in the space ecosystem exist that make the transition to such software perhaps not feasible. According to the report, these technical constraints require additional memory safety measures such as safe hardware and formal methods to achieve memory safety.

Space security has become a hot-button issue globally as space-based technologies and services have become a cornerstone of everyday life. In an attempt to regulate and plan for both the opportunities and risks posed by human activities in space, national governments and international institutions have been focusing on charting strategies and policies to regulate what many nations, excluding the United States, consider to be a global common. In November, the European Council approved the conclusions on the first EU Space Strategy for Security and Defense. The Council further proposed initiatives to strengthen the EU’s understanding of space threats, improve the resilience of space systems, boost its responses to space threats, and integrate the space dimension into its security and defense policy. In the first trimester of 2024, the Commission is expected to adopt the first EU Space Law, focusing on space safety, resilience, and sustainability. In December, NASA launched its first iteration of the Space Security Best Practices Guide, aimed at enhancing cybersecurity measures for both public and private sector endeavors in space. According to Anjana Rajan, Assistant National Cyber Director for Technology Security at The White House, the main difference between the current context and the first space race is the critical component software is bound to play this time around. NASA’s new guidelines are thus highly appropriate for the current dynamics as they set principles for both space missions and ground segments related to cybersecurity.

While space-based capabilities have grown increasingly necessary to societal functioning (from navigation to surveillance to banking), commercialization and great power competition have made space a contested and complex domain. One crucial development in space security is accelerating private sector investment in space. In the early 2010s, commercial investments surged due to technological advancements and reduced costs. More recently, SpaceX's Starlink constellation for satellite broadband has driven a significant increase in space launches. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2022, satellites from SpaceX and OneWeb accounted for seventy-four percent of all operational satellites in orbit. Additionally, according to a 2022 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on challenges to space security, the combined space fleets of China and Russia grew by seventy percent between 2019 and 2021. Meanwhile, these countries have actively been developing strategies to exploit the U.S.’s reliance on space-based systems in both the civilian and military realms and have conducted tests of sophisticated antisatellite weapons. In February, a cryptic statement by the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee warning of “a serious national security threat” was later revealed to be about the possibility of Russia soon placing a nuclear weapon in space – threatening the satellites the U.S. and allies depend on for military and civilian purposes and a serious violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The UN treaty has been ratified by the U.S., United Kingdom, Russia, and China. Space-based weapons are not only problematic as they can be used to destroy satellites in Low Earth Orbit, but they also produce debris that can harm satellites in nearby orbits. This aggressive development starkly contrasts with the official position of China and Russia at the United Nations, where they have advocated for the peaceful use of outer space.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has underscored the significance of space in offensive capabilities. On February 24, 2022, the day of the Russian invasion, Russia launched a complex cyber-attack affecting a telecommunications satellite owned by U.S. company Viasat which severely harmed Ukraine’s command and control. Meanwhile, China has had some technological breakthroughs posing a serious challenge to the U.S. military’s dominance in space. China is, for example, aiming for ground and space-based high-powered lasers, hypersonic maneuver missiles to destroy enemy satellites, and a satellite with a robotic arm that could help it move adversaries' satellites out of orbit. While Russia and China have been the main actors in this second space race, non-state actors increasingly understand space's importance in their strategic pursuits. In June 2023, hackers allegedly affiliated with the private military company the Wagner Group claimed a cyberattack against Russian satellite telecommunications provider Dozor-Teleport. Dozor-Teleport is used by the Russian Ministry of Defense and Gazprom, among other organizations foundational to Russia's critical infrastructure. As space increasingly becomes a realm of power struggle and rapid technological advancements allow for complex offensive capabilities, policy needs to reflect that space is a pivotal area of national security.