The Biden Administration Must Designate Civilian Satellites Critical Infrastructure

Nongovernment satellites are vulnerable to attack, and calling them critical infrastructure would make it easier for the U.S. to fight back

For five days in 2021, gas on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. stopped flowing. People began to panic-buy at the pumps and cancel trips.

A Russian criminal group with suspected ties to its government had hacked into Colonial Pipeline and demanded a $5 million payment. Weeks later, the Biden administration made clear it would not tolerate such attacks, giving Russia a list of 16 critical U.S. infrastructure sectors that the administration declared off-limits, including the energy sector. It is easy to understand why energy infrastructure deserves protection, not to mention health care, food, chemical manufacturing and the rest of the list of 16, but in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the prospect of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a new sector needs to be on the list of critical infrastructure: civilian satellites.

Whether facilitating services like weather forecasting and GPS navigation or supplying imagery that informs stock trades, civilian satellites are a vital resource in the 21st century. Any attack on them— whether physical or computer-mediated—could catastrophically disrupt daily life. A successful hack could prevent cargo ships from navigating the oceans or disrupting critical telecommunications services. Worse still, an attack on a civilian satellite that disrupts its navigation capabilities, or ability to send and receive data, stands to turn it into space debris that can disable other critical space objects.

Calling civilian satellites critical infrastructure communicates to other countries that these objects would be exempt from the standard espionage operations, the hacking, and some cases, the attacks that other countries conduct against the U.S. as part of normal foreign affairs. In turn, the U.S. government carries out similar operations against other nation’s military and government agencies. Should someone disrupt or destroy these satellites’ functions, it would elicit some sort of retaliatory response from the U.S. government.

Without that designation, hacking operations can target civilian satellites. In the hours preceding its invasion of Ukraine, Russian military intelligence units hacked into the European Internet service provider Viasat and wiped many of its customers’ modems. The attack did not touch Viasat’s network of satellites, but it nonetheless achieved its intended effect of blocking many users from accessing the Internet through these systems. If the attackers had chosen a different method of attack, Viasat’s satellites could have easily been in Russia’s crosshairs. In May, the National Security Agency issued a warning to operators of very-small-aperture terminal (VSAT) satellite networks, including civilian operators, to protect their computer networks. The warning was prompted by Russian cyber activity during the invasion of Ukraine and was likely instigated by intelligence showing Russian targeting of U.S. satellites.

And it’s not just Russia. Although the risk of China invading Taiwan is hotly debated among scholars, the actions that would precede such an invasion are not in dispute. Satellites are at the top of the target list for Beijing. China is likely to target satellites in any attempted invasion for the purposes of causing panic among civilians or disrupting and degrading Taiwanese and U.S. military command-and-control. A Chinese military researcher recently published an article arguing that China’s military must be able to take down StarLink satellites, as the civilian Internet-providing constellation poses a threat to the nation. China’s threat is not just theoretical. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ timeline of attacks on U.S. and other satellites by China notes eight separate attacks, most of which were against NASA satellites. A possible Taiwan crisis illustrates what’s at stake: civilian satellites may well end up in the crosshairs.

It is imperative that civilian satellites not become casualties of war and conflict. Other nations have already attacked civilian satellites in the U.S. and around the world. Their critical functions in daily life are too great to be ignored. A designation of their status as critical infrastructure would demonstrate to other countries that the U.S. will not tolerate attacks that disrupt or degrade their function. We must act now before another global crisis lurches us towards unintended consequences for civilians.

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