The space industry is concerned about cyber threats to space systems. Credit: Booz Allen Hamilton

As modern weapons systems become more automated and connected, they become more vulnerable to cyber threats: attacks on IP addresses, radio frequency (RF) manipulation, supply chain risk, human error (e.g., downloading a malicious attachment), and more. Unfortunately, much of today’s systems were never designed with these kinds of attacks in mind—or even cybersecurity in general.

Cybersecurity is particularly complicated for defense systems in the space sector. For starters, the attack surface presents a unique cybersecurity challenge. Across the complex architecture of space, ground, and RF/optical interfaces, each access point presents unique vulnerabilities. User equipment and hand-held devices like GPS further create a broad topology of access points in need of protection.

The disparate, interconnected components of a space system complicate security even more. Numerous components from multiple manufacturers are often designed to different international and industry standards. Increasingly complex and connected operational technology components can be difficult to protect, as can network-centric ground systems and components for information dissemination and processing. Once a satellite is launched, hardware maintenance becomes highly challenging without the opportunity to bring it back to a depot for servicing and updates.

It is possible to untangle the complexity and address these challenges but doing so requires more than simply bolting security features onto a system. Space organizations must treat cybersecurity as a function of operational and mission readiness. Systems must have cyber resilience built in from the beginning. Organizations must be continually vigilant in assessing vulnerability risks.

Based on Booz Allen’s extensive experience with cybersecurity, weapons systems, and the space sector, here are suggestions for increasing the cyber resiliency of space systems.

Start with the mission

Where and how is a space defense system at risk? How do these risks impact mission success? Do you understand the data on your systems and the value it has to an adversary?

Answering these questions—and optimizing protection via the most efficient, effective use of resources—requires that organizations move beyond traditional IT cybersecurity tactics to a more integrated approach.

Organizations must comprehensively map the vulnerabilities and dependencies of critical systems like maintenance and diagnostics, communications, and command and control against their mission. This involves:

  • Carefully assessing each component to understand which functions are vital to critical mission tasks and data
  • Understanding how systems interface with each other to pose vulnerabilities
  • Assessing and prioritizing these vulnerabilities in specific terms
  • Controlling ongoing vulnerabilities and monitoring for new, evolving and emerging risks over time

Then, supplement this knowledge with an assessment of the adversarial threat landscape, a viable risk management framework, cybersecurity testing and wargaming. Resiliency requires an integrated approach that incorporates cybersecurity into every aspect of operations.

Build resilience into the system

After mapping systems to mission-essential tasks and prioritizing vulnerabilities in the context of critical missions, organizations can infuse system functions and capabilities with appropriate levels of resilience.

Resilience is the capacity of systems to withstand disruption and continue operating with minimal impact on output or function. A resilient response reduces the impact of an event in terms of both impact and recovery time.

Organizations can achieve stronger resilience through better system design—specifically, design that acknowledges that space systems are comprised of many components that may operate independently and relatively autonomously. In the event of an attack, a resilient system will identify weaknesses within the network and software structure and leverage strengths to compensate.

Resilient design gives a system multiple ways to maintain functionality or quickly heal itself: shutting off compromised components, switching to redundant components, swapping out one system for another, or changing tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Leverage advanced analytics

Which resilience approach is best for minimizing downtime and achieving optimum performance? Advanced analytics can guide space systems—and the organizations that depend on them—to sharper, swifter decisions and improved resilience and survivability over time.

Such analytics can also empower cybersecurity overall. For example, the scanning and risk management tools currently used in many space weapons systems tend to reside in isolated silos, preventing cyber risk managers and weapons operators from operating from a common source of data.

Organizations can use advanced analytics to gain visibility into the entire attack surface and supporting infrastructure, get feedback from the system to increasingly improve system performance, and then use these insights for more informed risk management and more aligned decision-making around evolving threats.

In conclusion

Dynamic cyber resiliency, driven by advanced analytics and sharply focused on mission execution, can help space organizations fully understand, monitor, and mitigate the cyber vulnerabilities and system risks of their weapons systems.

Ryan Walters, Principal, Booz Allen Hamilton

Make security part of the design process. Integrate and balance cybersecurity with other performance requirements. Support risk management with advanced analytics. Most importantly, think of cybersecurity as a function of operational and mission readiness.

While achieving 100 percent security is impossible, these four steps can help space organizations be adaptive, prepared, and resilient as they move toward the objectives of the National Defense Authorization Act and protect weapons systems against escalating cyber threats.

Ryan Walters is a Principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global leader in cybersecurity and mission-critical weapon systems.