As the United States and its partners attempt to harness the benefits of 5G networks for future national security uses, the focus has been largely on land-based security networks. But in this analysis, Melissa K. Griffith of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars argues that those concerned about 5G security must aim higher.
What does the security, resilience and defense of satellite systems have to do with the fifth generation of mobile networks (5G)? Much more than you might think.
Much of our collective attention to national security in the United States has been focused on security issues related to the terrestrial components of 5G networks (e.g., radio access network, Internet of Things, cables submarines, etc.). Comparatively, little attention has been paid to national security issues associated with the evolving role of satellite communications systems within this “network of networks”.
The result is a potentially overlooked gap in our approach to 5G to date. It is important to note that this gap also represents a critical opportunity for the United States. If we choose to seize it, we can significantly strengthen the security, resilience and defense of our communications networks today and in the future.
With that goal in mind, my recent report and that of Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Hocking at the Wilson Center, “Seizing Opportunities: Four National Security Questions to Ask About the Use of Satellites in 5G Networks,” (a) looks at the evolution of Earth and space. communications networks, (b) outlines the range of national security risks associated with the use of satellites in 5G networks, and (c) identifies opportunities for the government to begin to assess and address these risks in the practice. Space, in many ways, represents a widely recognized critical infrastructure challenge.
We can and must build on these hard-learned lessons, while tailoring our efforts to the realities of space.
Why now? Historically, satellite and terrestrial communication networks developed separately and, although they exchanged data, were largely independent of each other. Today, the role of satellites in telecommunications is evolving, fueled by exponential demand for bandwidth and connectivity, and made possible by the technology and business models of “basic” satellite systems.
To realize the potential of ubiquitous and instant connectivity for a large number of devices around the world, terrestrial telecommunications systems, which rely heavily on buried fiber-optic cables, will not suffice. Satellites will need to play a much larger role, with terrestrial and space components working in tandem to provide a greater variety of functions.
Given the evolution of the underlying technology (mainly satellite and launch technology) and the business models of satellite companies (including satellite systems as a service), this increased role is now increasingly seen. no more possible. This shift is visible today with the emergence of companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, AST SpaceMobile, and Project Kupier, looking to create disruptive low Earth orbit (LEO) business models, as well as more geosynchronous vendors (GSOs). traditional like Telesat. and ViaSat, which are adapting their satellite infrastructure and capacities to compete for market share with proliferated LEO providers. Notably, earlier this year, Lockheed Martin’s space division announced a strategic partnership with satellite start-up Omnispace to jointly build a 5G space network, while Microsoft began provisioning remote data centers by leveraging from SpaceX’s Starlink Network.
Why worry? Communication networks have long been the target of malicious actors. This is a trend that is only expected to continue in 5G and be exacerbated by concerns arising from both the technical underpinnings and, potentially, the vendors who are building these increasingly software-defined and decentralized networks. In addition, although US competitors increasingly view space as an area of conflict, existing satellite systems are notoriously precarious. Even in newer satellite systems, security is too often an afterthought, rather than an integral part of the design, deployment and maintenance of these systems.
And after? The rigors and inaccessibility of space create challenges for maintenance and durability unlike almost anywhere else we operate. However, when it comes to national security issues, many of the same concerns that emerge from critical ground infrastructure efforts easily apply. Stakeholders of all kinds, including the political community, should avoid the impulse to unnecessarily redo the wheel.
These (not so new) problems fall into two broad categories: defending the systems themselves and ensuring the security of the data that passes through those systems. In practice, these efforts boil down to three categories of concerns:
- physical infrastructure or architecture, or physical security
- the digital systems running on and the data passing through this infrastructure, called cybersecurity
- the supply chains (both hardware and software) that make up these systems, i.e. supply chain security.
There is also a first order question that precedes these three concerns: the criticality of the use cases supported by these networks.
No matter where you are in the political landscape, you have significant opportunities in these categories of concerns – ranging from standards to government as a customer (e.g. DoD acquisitions) – to strengthen our collective 5G future. . By avoiding binding requirements documents that lack flexibility and utility over time, our report provides the policy and procurement community with a series of guiding questions and a detailed explanation of the importance of answers to these questions. .
Satellites will play a key role in shaping our collective 5G future. We cannot adequately assess or address the national security issues associated with 5G networks without also considering the spatial components of those networks.
Dr. Melissa K. Griffith is a Senior Associate in the Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a non-resident researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity (CLTC).