Cyber security is one of the largest international issues today, with U.S. President Barack Obama calling it, “One of the most serious economic and national security challenges [the U.S.] face[s] as a nation.” (1) Well-documented cyber attacks have occurred on Sony Pictures, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and North Korea’s Internet, among others. A rising area of concern is the amount of network technology being utilized on commercial airlines. While networks on planes are useful for increasing operational efficiency, there is a growing concern that increased connectivity means increased risk of breaches (2). The 2014 Malaysia Airlines crash and the recent EgyptAir crash were both shrouded in mystery, with cyber attacks being suspected as a cause. While it is unlikely a cyber attack actually caused either of these incidents, the government and private aviation industry have taken notice and are working to address cyber vulnerabilities on planes (3).
Cyber threats to commercial plane networks became a high profile issue in 2015 when security researcher Chris Roberts claimed to have gained access to a plane’s Thrust Management Computer (TMC) by hacking into the Inflight Entertainment system (IFE) with a modified Ethernet cable. He testified he was able to jump around to the cabin management system, satellite communication system, and potentially the avionics system (4). He also claimed he could have deployed the cabin oxygen masks and was able to slightly veer the plane. This drew the ire of the FBI, who opened an investigation of Roberts resulting in an affidavit for a search warrant of Roberts’s computer. After interviewing Roberts and various aviation experts, the FBI concluded that Roberts was likely exaggerating the amount of access he was able to gain and that his supposed flight alteration was a lie (4). Specifics aside, the revelation that any portion of the network is accessible to a passenger was alarming enough for a federal investigation. Boeing engineer Peter Lemme summarized the security threat by saying, “This behavior of a passenger connecting to something that they’re not supposed to connect to … we’ve got to at least say that’s a bad thing.” (4)
Another security concern involving commercial airlines is the potential for a plane’s GPS system to be manipulated by an outside source. Four years ago, North Korea allegedly jammed the GPS signals of 252 commercial flights, forcing them to turn off their navigation systems (5). Aviators and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alike are concerned about the possibility of a spoofed GPS signal. A spoofed, or fake, signal could be transmitted by an outside source to a flight, affecting its navigation and potentially even allowing the transmitter to indirectly influence a flight pattern. With governments such as China, North Korea, Russia, and the United States already engaged in cyber warfare, this is a very legitimate concern. The idea of a packed plane being flown in circles over the ocean until it runs out of fuel is a nightmare scenario for commercial airlines.
Precautions against cyber attacks on GPS systems are underway. The U.S. has planned upgrades to its air and ground systems, known as GPS III and OCX, respectively. Besides critical software and integration, the plan includes a fleet of new satellites to replace some aging ones and augments the new ground system’s superior technical capabilities. The proposed upgrades should cyber-harden the system against attacks and vulnerabilities (5). Other nations following suit would help secure the international GPS network from attack.
In addition to government upgrades, internal changes from airlines and regulatory bodies can help prevent cyber attacks. According to the Wall Street Journal, a panel of government and aviation experts has reached a preliminary agreement on proposed cyber security standards for airliners, including the concept of cockpit alerts in the event that critical safety systems are hacked (6). These notifications would notify pilots if systems such as GPS, communications, or autopilot are hacked and allow them to take action. They are not yet widely used or mandated by regulators. However, commercial and business planes certified during the past several years already feature some more-stringent cyber protections, though the recommendations are expected to go further (6). The recommendations are expected to be broad and policy-focused. Technical improvements will take a year to draft and at least a year to implement (6).
Outside of the panel, regulatory bodies and individual airlines have already taken action. In November 2015, the FAA issued special conditions effective for four makes of larger jets. They were designed to address a potential loophole in the safety standards involving the ability to connect passenger computer systems to critical aviation systems (3). This could help avoid incidents such as Chris Robertson’s network hack. The FAA’s statement acknowledged that increased network connectivity, “May enable the exploitation of network security vulnerabilities and increased risks, potentially resulting in unsafe conditions for the airplanes and occupants.” (3) In the private sector, leading aerospace manufacturer Boeing has laid out a comprehensive information security plan, saying “The existing in-service fleet of airplanes contains computerized systems, software parts, software control of devices, and off-board communication capabilities that all require an effective security solution.” (2) The aerospace industry must collaborate with the government to protect aviation systems from cyber threats before they become an international security issue.
(1) The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. Press Briefings Statements & Releases White House Schedule Presidential Actions Executive Orders Presidential Memoranda Proclamations Legislation Pending Legislation Signed Legislation Vetoed Legislation Nominations & Appointments Disclosures The White House May 29, 2009 Remarks by the President on Securing Our Nation's Cyber Infrastructure. The White House. Office of the Press Secretary, 29 May 2009. Web. 27 June 2016.
(2) Rencher, Robert. "Securing Airline Information on the Ground and in the Air."Aero Magazine. Boeing, Mar. 2012. Web. 26 June 2016.
(3) Norris, Guy. "Boeing, FAA Cut 777 Cyber Vulnerability." Aviation Week. N.p., 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 June 2016.
(4) Zetter, Kim. "Is It Possible for Passengers to Hack Commercial Aircraft?"Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 26 May 2015. Web. 26 June 2016.
(5) Pociask, Steve. "Your GPS Works Now, But Not For Long." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 23 June 2016. Web. 26 June 2016.
(6) Pasztor, Andy. "Panel Reaches Preliminary Agreement on Airliner Cybersecurity Standards." Wall Street Journal [New York] 13 June 2016: n. pag. WSJ. Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2016. Web. 26 June 2016.
Image: © Hkratky | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-landing-airplane-image3570852#res14972580">Landing airplane</a>
For much of history, the Arctic was of little strategic importance due to its hostile climate. However, the region was a large part of military escalation during the Cold War, marked by ICBM development and placement, production of nuclear-powered submarines, cruise missiles, and large radar installations (1). The Soviet Northern Fleet patrolled the Arctic; a group of submarines capable of patrolling the glacier-filled waters (1). After the Cold War, many Soviet military bases were left largely unused and the Arctic became something of an afterthought (1).
The Arctic Region is the polar, northernmost part of the globe. Its land is divided between multiple nations consisting of Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S (1). Together, they are formally known as the Arctic Council.
The strategic importance of the Arctic has evolved in the era of climate change. The warming of the polar ice cap is likely going to reveal a large amount of untapped natural resources that were previously inaccessible. The U.S. estimates that about 15% of the world's remaining oil, up to 30% of its natural gas deposits, and about 20% of its liquefied natural gas are stored in the Arctic seabed (2). Additionally, less ice would allow for faster shipping routes. By 2030, the Northern Sea Route will be passable to shipping for nine months a year. The route could cut down travel time between Europe and East Asia by as much as 60% compared to current routes through the Panama or Suez Canals (2). The Arctic is no longer a frozen tundra, but a potentially lucrative region for multiple nations. The Arctic is a contested region, largely because much of it is ocean subject to incomprehensible international laws and boundaries. The UN has proposed a treaty that defines where each country is allowed to claim underwater resources. All Arctic Council members with one notable exception, the United States, have ratified it (3). These boundaries are further complicated by the fact that Arctic Council members are prohibited from discussing international security matters at formal meetings (diplomat).
Because possession of the Arctic is not clearly defined, numerous countries have been devoting military resources to the region to assert their dominance over the coming resources. Russia has been greatly increasing their military power in the Arctic in an unsurprising display of expansion for those monitoring their actions in Europe. Since 2007, Russia’s navy has been regularly patrolling the Arctic (4). It is currently undergoing a major military upgrade of its northern coast and outlying archipelagos. Russia is reopening or building a total of 49 military installations in the Arctic region, significantly more than all other Arctic nations combined. These include search-and-rescue stations, ports and airstrips, and military headquarters. To support these bases, Moscow is reorganizing and upgrading the Northern Fleet as the Russian Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN). This will not be just a naval unit, but also include air support and special operations teams (2). Russia has been flexing its new muscles with frequent Arctic training exercises involving thousands of troops. Additionally, Moscow has filed a request for the UN to recognize its continental shelf claims in the Arctic (5). I December 2015, Vladimir Putin signed a new military doctrine, according to which the Arctic was officially listed in the Russian sphere of influence (6).
Russia’s expansion has caused concerns amongst other Arctic Council members who want to claim the region’s resources and trade routes. Moscow issued an official statement denying their military buildup reflects a change in policy, saying, “The apparent militarization of the Arctic is merely a process of normative securitization...Russia reprises its Cold War role and is cast as the villain of the Arctic narrative...Discussion of Russia’s ‘rapid’ militarization is misleading, as Russia’s Arctic military might isn’t anything new.” (5) Despite Russia’s claims they are not trying to control the region, other Arctic nations are following suit. Canada has been expanding its military presence in its northern territories, including a Canadian Arctic Forces Training center in Resolute Bay and a $100 million deep water docking port (1). Since 2007, the Canadian military has held Operation Nanook in the country’s north every year, a training exercise aimed exclusively at exercising Canadian sovereignty. Apart from Nanook, Canada has also held Operation Nunalivut in the High Arctic and Operation Nunakput in the western Arctic (1). Norway has also gotten in on the action with the July 2013 troop maneuver— Exercise Cold Response – in which more than 16,000 troops from 14 countries are believed to have participated (4).
The United States has been conspicuously absent from this Arctic expansion. Despite having a significant amount of territory in the Arctic via Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, the U.S. maintains a small presence in the region compared to Russia and Canada. This is best evidenced by disparities in military hardware. For example, the U.S. maintains a fleet of four icebreakers (ships that can traverse glacial waters) with plans for four or five more. Russia has 41 and could dominate a naval battle as a result. (6) Based on current policy, Russia has the edge to dominate the Arctic in the near future.
The political dynamics of the Arctic Council are the biggest opposition to Russian control of the Arctic. Five of the eight Arctic Council members are NATO states (4). This means they are required to intervene in the event of an attack on a member’s sovereignty. Russia has no allies on the Arctic Council, meaning it is easy for NATO interests to be preserved if the member nations can cooperate on Arctic policy and establish themselves in the region. It would be in the Council’s best interests to follow Russia’s lead and expand their military presence in the Arctic. The United States may not have as much territory as nations like Canada or Norway, but they do have the most economic resources. Joint military operations and bases are a good way to establish a NATO presence in the Arctic and the U.S. has the money and military strength to make these happen. As the Arctic thaws, tensions between NATO and Russia will continue heating up. The NATO Arctic Council countries would be wise to prepare for this scenario before it is too late.
(1) Spohr, Alexandro P., Jessica Da Silva Horing, Luiza G. Cerioli, Bruna Lersch, and Josua Gihad Alves Sohra. "Future Security of the Global Arctic: State Policy, Economic Security and Climate." UFRGS Model United Nations Journal 1 (2013): 11-70. UFRGS, 2013. Web. 19 June 2016.
(2) Bender, Jeremy, and Mike Nudelman. "This Map Shows Russia's Dominant Militarization of the Arctic." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 07 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 June 2016.
(3) Mccormick, Ty. "Arctic Sovereignty: A Short History." Foreign Policy. N.p., 7 May 2014. Web. 20 June 2016.
(4) Singh, Abhijit. "The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic." The Diplomat. N.p., 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 June 2016.
(5) "The Cold War Gets Icy With Russia and US Weapons Build-Up in Arctic." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 June 2016.
(6) Danu, Tiberiu. "Russia's Arctic Expansionism: How Should the U.S. Respond?" American Thinker. N.p., 16 July 2016. Web. 19 June 2016.
Image: © Igor Akimov | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/editorial-photo-launched-largest-head-nuclear-icebreaker-saint-petersburg-russia-june-baltic-factory-officially-arktika-image73033946#res14972580">Launched the largest head-nuclear icebreaker</a>