Authors: Giovanni Tricco, Giorgia Zaghi and Maria Makurat.
The challenges of secure communications today and the launch of IRISS
Secure communications and connectivity are today more important than ever. Ensuring a safe, fast and reliable channel for such strategic activities is not just a matter of digital transformation and competitive advantage, it is a matter of establishing one’s autonomy in a world where space power has become a critical component of international politics. On October 13th, the European Union took a significant step forward in order to achieve such autonomy. That is, the adoption of the report on the secure connectivity programme for 2023-2027, also known as Infrastructure for Resilience Interconnectivy Security by Satellite (IRISS). The aim of the program is to detach from third-country dependencies on infrastructure by securing the Union’s communications and to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to areas that are now considered “dead-zones”. Such goals will be met thanks to the nature of IRISS. That is, a multi-orbit constellation capable of creating synergies with the already existing satellites Galileo and Copernico. The constellation will be situated in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), the closest feasible latitude to the planet's surface spanning from 300 to 1600 km, ensuring rapid broadband connectivity. That means, data will flow faster from terminals on the ground to satellites in orbit and back.
While the necessity to establish the EU’s position in the space realm is certainly a strategic priority, the recent happenings of the war in Ukraine have highlighted some structural fragilities and vacuums which ultimately called for a concrete push in securing the Union’s communications.
War in Ukraine and satellite security
The Ukraine war has shown how a solid cyber strategy that includes satellites is vital also in face of war. In May, BBC News and other outlets reported of Russia hacking the Ukraine satellite communication KA-SAT system which was also attributed by the European Council to Russia in May 2022 in this statement. This attack had an impact on the communications as well as the government and the military. At the beginning of the war, there was also significant concerns by analysts whether Russia would launch several cyber attacks against satellites and communications systems in Ukraine and the West. As a reaction to this cyber attack on Ukraine, the European Space Policy Institute has released a report, to analyze said cyber attack on KA-SAT and how space cyber security plays a role for the war in Ukraine. An interesting take from the report is, that there also seems to be a question around which countries and which company are exactly responsible for the security of the communications system in another country: “The attack did not target the KA-SAT satellite itself, but one single “consumer-oriented partition of the KA-SAT network”, which is owned by the U.S. company Viasat but operated by Eutelsat’s subsidiary Skylogic. This raises questions on the responsibilities and liabilities of each company for ensuring proper cybersecurity.” This would be one significant challenge when it comes to developing new frameworks for the launch of constellations to ensure better connections between countries in terms of space security. This is also similarly discussed by academics such as Johann Eriksson and Giampiero Giacomello calling the consequence of technologies at the crossroad of outer space and cyberspace “fragmentation” - meaning that governance becomes increasingly difficult since “The growth of states with space program has gone from the original 2 to around 70 today, and the simultaneous growth of private corporations (and NGOs) in space contributes to an increasingly fragmented field of stakeholders.”
Furthermore, the US and other countries have been supporting Ukraine during the war with not only physical military equipment but also funds and technological development to keep the communications system intact. This support is part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) and shows how space and cyber are an integral part of the war. Ukraine has also been using AI during this war which was already analyzed by our members in another blog article which can be read here. Therefore, we can grasp why the EU is working on launching its sovereign constellation.
Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty of the matter. IRISS focuses on several goals which range from strategic positioning, creation of synergies and environmental concerns. More specifically, we can expect these objectives from the deployment of the constellation:
- Top-notch technologies for secure communications: the constellation will integrate quantum computing features that will provide a higher level of encryption on the data that will flow on the new infrastructure. These technologies are part of the EruopeQCI (Quantum Communication Infrastructure) initiative and are aimed at improving the overall Cybersecurity and Resilience of the European Union along with improving its digital sovereignty and competitiveness. The program’s goal is to “safeguard sensitive data and critical infrastructures by integrating quantum-based systems into existing communication infrastructures, providing an additional security layer based on quantum physics”.
- Synergies with already existing assets in the EU space programme: creating synergies with the already existing assets - Galileo and Copernico - IRISS will be offering new services such as addressing natural or maritime disasters.
- High-speed broadband connectivity everywhere: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) pointed outthat just 63% of the world’s population was connected in 2021, amounting to 2.9 billion unconnected people. IRISS will be an important player in the fight of the digital divide, bridging the gap between urban and rural areas, eliminating “dead-zones”.
- Reducing space congestion: Considering the increasing volume of debris and satellites in space, IRISS sets new objectives for Space-Traffic Management, trying to keep space a safe environment. Additionally, the EU will use IRISS - a key enabler for Air-Traffic Management - to reduce air traffic congestion and avoid an excess in fuel consumption, with the ultimate goal of reducing CO2 emissions.
Moreover, as a spillover effect of the new communication system the EU will have the capability to reinforce its stance in cyberspace. The EU's new "status" will enable for the seamless operation of key infrastructure and the continuous cooperation of citizens and public agencies in the event of emergencies and disasters. Furthermore, it would serve as a backup infrastructure for terrestrial networks as well as a stable infrastructure for places that are currently disconnected but may need communication in the event of crises and catastrophes.
Additionally, satellite communication, integrated with the data-imagery service of Copernicus, would improve early-warning systems by monitoring the environment and delivering the latest data to public authorities, allowing them to respond rapidly to environmental hazards such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, or radioactive releases.
Therefore, several opportunities will arise for the EU following the constitution of an operational European Constellation. The new space infrastructure would be a significant step forward for the EU on its journey to digital sovereignty, as it would allow the EU to flow in outer space data and information that are considered sensitive and strategic for its autonomy. As a result, such data will be secured from unlawful third-party access, as may occur under extraterritorial law such as the US Cloud Act. In addition, the new constellation could be used as a ‘geopolitical tool’, offering fast broadband internet connection to neighboring countries, such as north africa, where internet access lacks. Indeed, of the 2.9 billion unconnected people the 96% reside in developing countries.
In conclusion, IRISS holds an enormous potential in different areas, however, it is not free of challenges that must be addressed as quickly as possible. Indeed, a fine balance between public private and partnership in the construction of the constellation should be institutionalized, as well as shedding light on who should be responsible for the security and functioning of the constellation. Moreover, the EU will have to develop an attentive Space Traffic Management strategy to ensure a safe, secure and sustainable use of Space. Furthermore, how should AI be regulated in the constellation and, more broadly, in outer space? How much autonomy should a space object be granted? In particular, experts suggest that appropriate frameworks to offer legal certainty should be developed in the near future to offer appropriate guidelines on the use of AI and new technologies in outer space, such as to ensure coordination among satellites to avoid collisions or assessing an appropriate fair balance of Human-Robot Interaction for in-orbit services.
The initial phase of IRISS development is critical for the time being to foster public debate about the relevance that the new constellation will detain and its future benefits and challenges. Indeed, in the upcoming years space will be a significant playground for the European Union as its digital sovereignty and autonomy will be put at test in front of issues related to both infrastructure dependency and strategic advantage.