Lasers – A Dual Use System Left Vulnerable To Cyber-Attack

As space operations become increasingly advanced, new technologies are being developed to enhance communications, ranging information, and space debris tracking and management. This is highlighted in the recent article by Studio regarding new laser applications for space systems. As discussed in the article, lasers offer significant opportunities for mostly innocuous purposes. Laser ranging of satellites provides timely and incredibly accurate position data, helping operators predict collision probabilities and create a safer operating environment. Laser communications also offer a new form of communication that is harder for bad actors to intercept due to its small beamwidth and promises high data rate transmission that is difficult to jam or interfere with. Additionally, high-power lasers offer a way to alter the orbit of space debris, reducing the risk of collisions in space.

Unfortunately, lasers aren’t only used for harmless purposes. As acknowledged by the article’s author, lasers, as a dual-use technology, can be utilized to dazzle optical sensors, effectively blocking the capture of images in targeted areas. By increasing the laser’s power, permanent damage to the optical sensor’s focal plane can be achieved, ending the sensor’s ability to perform its role. These types of ground-based technologies could play a significant role in strategic conflicts by affecting countries’ abilities to perform reconnaissance.

Though not the focus of the article, the topic of cybersecurity is briefly mentioned in the context of securing satellite communications from attacks and degradation. However, missing from the conversation is the role of cybersecurity in the laser systems themselves. Just like any other computer, the systems controlling lasers are vulnerable to cyber-attacks that can degrade the lasers’ ability to perform their role or take over their operations.

Continuous laser ranging on satellites and debris creates a safer operating environment and provides a strategic advantage in conflicts. However, if a cyber-attack leaves you unable to access that data while giving millimeter-accuracy orbit determination to your adversary, billions of dollars’ worth of difficult to replace satellite systems can be held at risk to their weapons systems. Similarly, high-powered lasers used to alter space debris courses can be quickly turned into a dispersed attack network by nation-states or other nefarious actors. High-powered laser systems with access to ultra-precise ephemeris data can be directed at optical sensors, permanently disabling them or wreaking havoc on imagery analysts’ work. With a sophisticated enough cyber-attack, this could be done without the attacker needing the infrastructure and technology required to build a high-powered laser, simply create a dispersed laser attack system by borrowing someone else’s unsecured network to gain an upper hand in reconnaissance. 

While a hack on a laser weapons system might seem unrealistic, in 2019, a North Korean state-sponsored hacking group stole approximately 1.2 TB of data from a South Korean defense company, including information on a classified laser system. This hack might not provide unrestricted access to any operational laser systems, but the information obtained could bring them or their allies one step closer to such access.

Hackers don’t have to target only lasers classified as weapons systems. An abundance of high-powered lasers are operationally used for communications and Space Domain Awareness. The Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) published an article in 2021 after the successful demonstration of LUCAS, a laser communication terminal that captured and tracked laser communications with their relay satellite. This success, however, is not without additional publicity regarding cybersecurity breaches that occurred in 2016, 2017, and most recently in 2023. Though it appears no access to operational laser systems was obtained during the breaches, these incidents highlight that unauthorized access is not just a worst-case nightmare, but increasingly a realistic possibility. 

The rapid advancement of laser technologies in space operations presents both extraordinary opportunities and significant risks. While these technologies offer unparalleled benefits in communication, precise positioning, and space debris management, they also pose potential threats when misused or compromised. Recent cybersecurity breaches highlight the critical need for robust security measures. To ensure the safe and effective use of laser systems, stakeholders must prioritize cybersecurity, otherwise we risk creating technologies that can be compromised and turned against us. By doing so, we can harness the full potential of laser technologies for peaceful and strategic purposes while safeguarding against their misuse in the increasingly contested domain of space.