A former First Sea Lord has warned that Royal Navy ships and Britain’s merchant fleet could become sitting ducks for hackers if adversaries find ways to knock out satellite communications.
The warning was issued by the Lord West of Spithead, who was First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff from 2002 to 2006. After retiring from the Royal Navy, he served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the British Home Office and was the security advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown between 2007 and 2010.
During his tenure at the Home Office, Lord West released the UK’s first National Security Strategy as well as the country’s first Cyber Security strategy. In an interview given to BBC this week, he said that Royal Navy ships and Britain’s merchant fleet rely heavily on satellite communications for navigation and don’t have an alternative plan in place to account for the loss of communications.
“My concern is that those people who are not friends with us are looking at ways to knock out satellite communications. I thought I’d ask the government, I thought they’d have processes, but it became very clear from their answers that they don’t understand what the problem is. There’s no proper system for achieving communication if satellites collapse,” he said.
“If you don’t have a fallback for a system, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will exploit that. The best fallback is probably old VHF [radio] systems. GPS can very easily be messed up. We know the Russians are practising this.”
The former First Sea Lord has reason to be worried, for hostile nations, such as China and Russia, have been developing purpose-built missiles and electronic weapons to destroy satellites. In September last year, the Pentagon warned that China already had an arsenal of ground-based missiles that can hit satellites and “probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit.”
The former First Sea Lord’s warning also comes not long after the Royal Navy renewed a long-term contract with Airbus Defence and Space for continued satellite-based maritime surveillance services. The technology will enable the UK’s Joint Maritime Security Centre (JMSC) to monitor ship activity in the UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Airbus Defence and Space presently operates Skynet, a family of military communications satellites on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. These satellites are used by all branches of the military, including intelligence agencies, as well as some civilian government departments for various purposes.
The UK is reportedly spending about £6 billion to replace existing Skynet satellites with a new family of satellites, known as Skynet 6, as part of the MoD’s Future Beyond Line of Sight Satellite Communications programme.
Commenting on the warning issued by Lord West, Nikos Mantas, Incident Response Expert at Obrela Security Industries, says that his firm witnessed a 33% increase in cyber attacks on ships in Q2 2021 compared to Q2 2020, so it is definitely an area of interest to attackers.
“Although the steering of the vessel still relies mainly on actions performed by the crew, most functions from the engine-room are performed by cyber-physical systems. The malfunction of such components can lead to life-endangering situations, especially since the protocols used for communication and vessel location are obsolete and can be bypassed (even spoofed) by an attacker. Such systems are often left with default settings and credentials from their building process, becoming a lucrative target even for amateur attackers.
“It will take a great deal of initiative by the International Maritime Organization and engaged stakeholders to re-assess not only vessel-to-shore communication protocols, but also guarantee that cyber-physical component suppliers and maintenance technicians meet standards for cybersecurity,” he adds.