WASHINGTON — Satellite operators are dealing with the reality that the ground systems and network equipment used to operate space systems provide many entry points for cyber attackers.  Cyber and malware attacks can be pulled off at a relatively low cost, making these types of weapons far more accessible than missiles or lasers. 

This is an issue of growing concern for the U.S. Space Force, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of Space Operations Command.

A key challenge for the Space Force is how to assess cyber security risks, Whiting said July 7 on the Space Policy Show, hosted by the Aerospace Corp. 

“That’s been on my mind recently: cyber security and how we measure risk in the cyber domain,” said Whiting, who has described the cyber domain as the “soft underbelly of our global space networks.”

“It’s a real issue and it’s an issue that we’ve asked for and gotten some help from the policy community,” he said. 

The military is more comfortable dealing with physical security threats whereas cybersecurity is a different problem that requires a nontraditional approach, he noted. 

“At Peterson Space Force Base [Colorado] we have a fence around our installation, we have armed security forces members who are well trained on how to defend this installation,” Whiting said. “We have security cameras, we have security alarms, all of that coming together. We’re pretty comfortable understanding what our security posture is relative to the threat outside the gate, based on intelligence and law enforcement.”

Now contrast that with cybersecurity, he said, “where we know there are countries that are trying to probe us in cyber, what we call advanced, persistent threat actors. We don’t have a similar feel for how to measure our risk in cyber.”

The Space Force is now  looking to add more squadrons of cyber specialists to support military units that operate communications, surveillance and navigation satellites. “We’ve invested in cyber defenses,” said Whiting. “We have a cyber workforce who is thinking about defensive cyber.” The challenge is “how do you measure that cyber risk in a way that you can come to a decision on whether I’m comfortable with my risk posture?”

Russia’s tactics in Ukraine, where hackers were trying to penetrate Ukraine’s communications satellite infrastructure ahead of the February invasion, are seen as a playbook for how cyber weapons could be used in other conflicts. 

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported jamming of Starlink communications near Ukrainian conflict areas. And hackers infiltrated Viasat’s KA-SAT satellite internet network, disabling modems that provided thousands of customers in Ukraine and nearby countries with internet links.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...