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Skynet 6: the importance of hybrid and holistic security

(Image credit: Image Credit: BeeBright / Shutterstock)

Security will be critical to the success next generation of UK military satellite systems. To help ensure UK satellite architectures maintain the edge needed to outpace adversarial threats, cybersecurity must be incorporated from the design stage.

Failure to do so may have devastating consequences. As several studies have made clear, NATO depends on satellite communications (SATCOM) for a variety of tasks, including networking, ISR and navigation.

“Almost all modern military engagements rely on space-based assets,” notes a July 2019 Chatham House study. The report states that current cyber-vulnerabilities “undermine the confidence in the performance of strategic systems.” And, as a result, “rising uncertainty in information and analysis continues to impact the credibility of deterrence and strategic stability.

But near-peer adversaries have devoted considerable attention and resources to disrupting NATO SATCOM. Multiple adversarial nations have developed a range of offensive capabilities that have the potential to disrupt future UK SATCOM architectures, such as Skynet 6. In fact, some in the defence industry have said current SATCOM architectures may be the “Achilles heel” of military operations.

The spectre of hostile security capabilities not only threatens NATO’s communications capabilities, but NATO’s deterrence as well. As such, the challenge of a next-generation satellite system, such as Skynet 6, becomes not only ensuring that users have sufficient connectivity to meet emerging mission needs, but also protecting that system from current cyber and security vulnerabilities. As the Chatham study states, “critical dependency on space has resulted in new cyber- risks that disproportionately affect mission assurance.” Chatham House also notes that “investing in mitigation measures and in the resilience of space systems for the military is key to achieving protection in all domains.”

To deter fast moving adversarial threats and help ensure the MOD maintains superiority in space, it will be critical for the UK government to leverage the best of both private sector and purpose-built military SATCOM technology. Furthermore, to address security and resilience vulnerabilities as the MOD’s transition to the Skynet 6 program draws closer, it will be critical for the UK government to take a holistic approach to developing the security features for Skynet 6 from the outset.

By taking this hybrid and holistic network approach, the MOD can deploy the most sophisticated most assured, most capable and most resilient SATCOM architecture ever developed.

The hybrid adaptive network

This is the essence of the Hybrid Adaptive Network concept. Hybrid Adaptive Networks (HAN) take a holistic approach that combines multiple layers of government and private sector architectures into an integrated whole. Combining military and private sector SATCOM networks creates a system with powerful synergy that can deliver significantly enhanced security features to MOD and other NATO allies. HAN architectures have also been shown to deliver the greatest performance and mission assurance for increased lethality and survivability in both benign and contested domains.

In addition, since the HAN is an open-source system, there is no single vendor and hence no vendor lock. Further, the HAN embraces technology innovation by readily accepting new networks, steadily advancing the capabilities and continually extending the resiliency of the HAN over time. The system can route traffic based on the needs of a given mission, using solutions such as software-defined terminals and an integrated network management system that can easily switch users between different networks and beams based on the needs of a mission.

More importantly, HAN architectures offer a number of advanced security features that can help the MOD rapidly outpace adversarial threats capable of disrupting UK military SATCOM networks.

The Chatham House study urges NATO members to secure their space assets from cyberattack starting with the design stage, and to research new cybersecurity methods. A HAN architecture takes a holistic approach to securing the network. By designing features into a central HAN architecture for the Skynet 6 programme, the MOD will be able to deploy advanced security capabilities needed to maintain a tactical advantage. A few of these features include:

  • Real-time active cyberdefence: a system that actively monitors, correlates, and attributes threats in real-time and provides in-depth analysis, management and response to defeat rapidly evolving network attacks. Automated trust-based security policies quarantine threats and prevent lateral movement within the network, while synchronising network activities and user mission operation centres to assure network security and mission execution.
  • Early network threat detection: Rather than being limited to a government-only network, the HAN has the ability to look across both commercial and government SATCOM architectures, which can provide network managers with more effective search aperture, more diverse data base and far more productive behaviour analysis capability to more rapidly identify, assess and defend against emerging network threats. This can help network managers proactively accelerate cyber defence manoeuvres and strengthen cybersecurity capabilities well beyond that of a government-only network.
  • Early network threat detection: Rather than being limited to a government-only network, the HAN has the ability to look across both commercial and government SATCOM architectures, which can provide network managers with more effective search aperture, more diverse data base and far more productive behaviour analysis capability to more rapidly identify, assess and defend against emerging network threats. This can help network managers proactively accelerate cyber defence manoeuvres and strengthen cybersecurity capabilities well beyond that of a government-only network.
  • Network layering: network resilience with management and control with alternate paths to quickly move users across multiple satellite beams, overlapping service layers, and connectivity alternatives in near real-time to counter enemy jamming and interference attempts. By layering private sector and UK military satellite networks, the MOD can greatly improve resiliency, deterrence, and redundancy as it offers a multi-band, multi-network option. This allows the user to manoeuvre across networks and help ensure operations continue through threats and jamming attempts.
  • Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI): machine learning and AI capabilities offered by private sector leaders can rapidly recognise threat vectors and report potential threats on the HAN network. By employing machine learning and AI capabilities, MOD will have the capability to defend against billions of cyber-threats within a 24 hour period. The organic intelligence growth of machine learning and AI capabilities will also be critical to maintaining a tactical advantage as the volume of connected battle-network devices continues to increase.

A HAN-centric Skynet 6 would be an open, flexible Service Delivery Platform with a robust, scalable and secure communications network architecture. In addition, HAN would be backed by private sector leaders’ vast experience, proven capabilities and leading innovation trajectories. Ultimately, a hybrid approach to Skynet-6 would allow the MOD to maintain the tactical edge needed to deter fast-moving threats and bring the battle-network of the future to life across the battlespace.

Skynet 6 offers the MOD the opportunities for both enhanced SATCOM and stronger security. By using a hybrid approach to leverage the best of both private sector and military SATCOM technology, the MOD can deploy an advanced SATCOM network that is sure to help the UK maintain superiority in space and deter fast evolving security threats from adversarial nations.

Ken Peterman, President of Government Systems, Viasat