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Why the Next Great War is Likely to be Fought in Space

Any satellite that can change orbit can be considered a space weapon, but since many of the possible cyber scenarios in space have yet to occur, cybersecurity experts, military commanders and policymakers do not fully understand the range of potential consequences that could result.

During the cold war, the Soviets were interested in paralysing America’s strategic forces, strategic command and control, and communications. They would do so by first using an electromagnetic pulse to sever communication and operational capabilities, and then launching a mass attack across the North Pole to blow up US intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In 1967, the US, UK and Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed by 105 countries (including China). It set in place laws regarding the use of outer space and banned any nation from stationing nuclear warheads, chemical or biological weapons in space. However, the treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit, so weapons such as kinetic bombardment (i.e. attacking Earth with a projectile) are not strictly prohibited.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un has taken a page from the old Soviet playbook by launching two satellites (in 2012 and 2016) that can threaten the US by – in theory, at least – attacking the US with an electromagnetic pulse as part of a surprise assault aimed at crippling the US military. The satellites would allow North Korea to play a cyber-age version of battleship diplomacy – with one of the two satellites always close to being in orbit directly over the US at any point in time. Even though North Korea does not have enough missiles with sufficient sophistication to blow up US missiles or bomber bases, just the launch of the electromagnetic pulse could severely disrupt the US electricity grid, telecoms, transport network and other forms of critical infrastructure.

Although the global media is fond of highlighting North Korea’s many missile launch failures, when viewed through the lens of potential preparations for an electromagnetic pulse attack, its launches should actually be viewed as successes. After all, two of its satellites circle the Earth, and, in spite of its many launch failures, the country continues to make significant progress in its long-range missile programme. A single warhead could disable the US national electric grid and other life-sustaining critical infrastructure for more than a year. The two North Korean satellites that orbit over the US are on trajectories consistent with a surprise electromagnetic pulse attack.

For its part, China sees space warfare as its best chance to directly compete with the US militarily, since it has no blue-water navy, or anywhere near the assets and firepower capability of the US military. Rather than trying to match the US navy and air force, China believes it can gain an advantage through the production of specialised missiles, spacecraft and platforms to send to the moon. Many Chinese military analysts see space warfare as inevitable, and argue that it must be seized and controlled so as to achieve space supremacy.

In 2015, the People’s Liberation Army published the book, Light War, which assigned a central role to fighting future wars using lasers. The book argues that future warfare will be dominated by combining big data analytics using cyber warriors armed with artificial intelligence, robot lasers, and directed-energy weapons.

The Chinese effort could neutralise decades of investment by the US in its own directed-energy weapons, which are expected to be deployed in the early 2020s (high-powered compact laser guns are slated for deployment in the 2030s). China’s disclosures about the coming “weaponisation of space” should greatly concern US and allied defence planners. The US may soon have no choice but to change its long-held policy of not deploying arms in space.

As evidence that the Chinese government is peering far into the future, it plans to create an entire system of quantum-enabled, satellite-based communication that relies on entanglement (grouping particles together). The Chinese government seeks to build an entirely new kind of internet that is completely secure and impervious to hackers. This year, Chinese scientists set a new distance record for beaming a pair of entangled particles – photons of light that behave like twins and experience the exact same things simultaneously, even though they are separated by great distances. The principle is called quantum entanglement, which is one of the subatomic world’s strangest phenomena.

Space warfare has propelled hacking to a whole new dimension. Among Nasa’s cyber concerns are hackers wanting to breach communications between its ground-based operations and one of its 65 spacecraft transmitting research data. Its nightmare is a direct cyberattack on its satellites.

In 2016, Nasa reported 1,484 “cyber incidents,” including hundreds of attacks executed from websites or web-based applications.

The next war between major powers is likely to be fought in space, or, at a minimum, have a space-based component. As is the case with cybersecurity policy on Earth, cybersecurity in space clearly needs to be brought into the 21st century. The current state of affairs is riddled with gaps, inconsistencies and vulnerabilities. By undertaking to develop an international multi-stakeholder cybersecurity regime, the space industry could play an increasingly influential role in developing international standards and establishing a strong knowledge base in the cybersecurity domain.

This article was originally posted in the South China Morning Post.