Critical Infrastructure and Critical Considerations: Securing Australia’s Space Capabilities

Laura Breckon | Cyber & Technology Fellow

Australia’s advanced array of industrial resources, coupled with advantageous geographical qualities means we have a unique launchpad to establish and maintain a strong national space capability. Furthermore, over the past two years, Australia’s space technology economy, and international interest in it has skyrocketed. However, recent events have highlighted that effective integration of space security measures into our space sector developmental strategy must be implemented with stringent attention to detail, or risk major national and economic security hazards.

Space technology has been recognised as critical infrastructure in Australia, and across the world. This will be codified as such in Australia with the expected passing of the Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2020 (Cth) amending the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 (Cth). Why? Not only do these assets inform our defence and government operations, space assets are also central to our day to day lives. Their serviceability implicates geospatial mapping and earth observation technology applications in agriculture and water management, as much as satellites servicing remote communications and digital navigation, and satellite internet capabilities. Any disruption to these may have serious consequences. As such, intelligent space infrastructure investment, both inward and outward, and developing well-designed sovereign space infrastructure and activity capabilities are a priority.

We are witnessing a manifold increase in the militarisation of the space domain. The key challenge currently facing dialogue in Australia’s space tech industry is the dual interests of our reliance on fostering and maintaining unencumbered international investment and collaboration in our industry, an increased demand for more stringent security in critical infrastructure.

Cybersecurity is a priority at the fore of these concerns. Infrastructure disruption via cyber warfare has entered a new era over the last few years. Cyber hostilities were recorded as occurring at an unprecedented level over the past year, more sophisticated than ever, and penetrating some of the most impenetrably designed cyber infrastructure on the planet. Notably, the Solarwinds hack of 2020 highlighted the vulnerability of multi-network and shared build system security design. Comparatively, cybersecurity measures of our infrastructure in the space domain pale in comparison to that penetrated in the Solarwinds attack. So how do we manage an internationally integrated space industry, maximising its strengths and removing barriers to collaboration, while minimising vulnerabilities?

Space infrastructure is vulnerable to physical threats, such as the development of anti-satellite weaponry and the ever-growing threat of hurtling space debris. However, it has been noted that the telecommunications network security protocols, upon which the uplinks and downlinks of satellites rely, are known and relatively vulnerable to cyber criminals. Furthermore, as investors and project teams, both foreign and domestic, race to produce results in an increasingly competitive market, cyber risk assessments may be hurried and corners more readily cut. It is with such factors in mind that the Australian Government introduced in January 2021 a new national security test led by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) that foreign investors must pass in order to participate in technology deals, as well as those relating to other ‘sensitive industries’, in Australia.

Space is a shared domain of public and private entities. Since the November 2020 signing of the Artemis Accords, Australia has pledged to a ‘space as a global commons’ modus operandi. Therefore, public-private project (PPP) investment is widespread, and so requires an alignment of public-private policy, internationally and domestically. A major step forward in this regard internationally is the signing of the UK-Australia Space Bridge Framework Arrangement. Under this initiative, both states will encourage investment collaboration and regulatory alignment. Such strategies function to alleviate concerns of conflicting interests and foster confidence in the viability and accessibility of collaborating in future space technology and infrastructure projects together.

Such regulation will need to facilitate the integration of newer innovations on the space project investment scene. For instance-space equity. This is a Luxembourgeois innovation in the field of project finance. Though it may be particularly suited to growing Australia’s hub of space SME’s, such innovations have quickly put pressure on regulators and lawmakers across the globe to increase legal harmonisation. This involves answering questions relating to how liability and property may be managed and defined within such relationship structures. New South Wales has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Luxembourg regarding such relations, however other states and the federal government are yet to integrate these considerations into their broader space security strategies.

The space technology sector in Australia is undergoing a period of massive growth, and so strategic partnerships and investment regulations will be central to maintaining its strength and integrity. Since space technology is now recognised as critical infrastructure by the Federal Government, it is essential that regulators and those servicing these capabilities review its key weaknesses. Recent major cybersecurity breaches across the globe have underscored the importance of this. As we continue to forge Australia’s space industry’s development trajectory, capabilities must be developed in anticipation of increased hostilities in this domain. In order to effectively do this, policy and strategic partnerships must work in harmony to ensure that the systems underpinning our critical space infrastructure are secured, all the while minimising barriers to development. A tricky balancing act, but not an impossible one.

Laura Breckon is the Cyber & Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs