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China, Russia Taking Aim at US Space Firms

An illustration of a cyberattack in progress. (Diaa Bekheet)
An illustration of a cyberattack in progress. (Diaa Bekheet)

Chinese and Russian spy agencies are setting their sights on private, U.S.-based space companies, hoping to steal new technologies while thwarting American advances, according to a new warning from U.S. counterintelligence officials.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center, the FBI, and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations issued the two-page bulletin Friday, cautioning that foreign intelligence agencies have increasingly come to view the growing U.S. space industry as a necessary and lucrative target.

"We anticipate growing threats to this burgeoning sector of the U.S. economy," said a U.S. counterintelligence official, speaking about the new warning on the condition of anonymity.

"China and Russia are among the leading foreign intelligence threats to the U.S. space industry, but other nations are also targeting this sector," the official added, noting countries like Iran have also been tied to plots to steal data from U.S. satellite tracking and communication firms.

"They are targeting this sector to acquire data, technology, and expertise through a variety of means," the official said.

Specifically, the bulletin warns of cyberattacks, attempts to collect sensitive data on satellite payloads, attempts to disrupt satellite communications and other space infrastructure, and attempts to steal data on technological on intellectual property that could give U.S. adversaries an economic or military advantage.

A combination of factors

U.S. counterintelligence officials emphasize the just-issued warning is not the result of any one development. Instead, they point to a combination of factors, including repeated attempts by China and Russia to acquire U.S. space-related technology and the growth of the industry itself.

"The global space economy is projected to grow from $469 billion in 2021 to more than $1 trillion by 2030," according to the bulletin, which further warned space is now "fundamental to every aspect of our society, including emergency services, energy, financial services, telecommunications, transportation, and food and agriculture."

A separate report in June by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found the U.S. space economy accounted for more than $211 billion in sales in 2021 while being responsible for 360,000 private sector jobs.

Such rapid growth, according to U.S. counterintelligence officials, is also creating opportunities for foreign spy agencies to take advantage of U.S. space companies.

In some cases, foreign spy agencies have even created pop-up companies in third countries for the purpose of luring U.S. companies into deals so they can gain access to data or materials.

In January, for example, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a satellite company called Spacety Luxembourg because of its ties to a Chinese-based company that had been supplying satellite imagery to Russia's paramilitary Wagner Group to help with operations in Ukraine.

In another case, from 2019, a Chinese national was sentenced to more than three years in prison for using a variety of aliases to obtain radiation-hardened power amplifiers and supervisory circuits from U.S. companies.

Russian operatives active

U.S. counterintelligence officials say Russian operatives have also been active as they try to evade Ukraine-related sanctions.

In October 2022, the U.S. charged five Russian nationals for a scheme to get advanced semiconductors and microprocessors that could be used in satellites and missiles.

Counterintelligence officials also pointed to Russia's February 2022 cyberattack against a satellite network operated by U.S.-based Viasat.

Friday's bulletin warned U.S. space companies to be on the alert for signs they may be the target of foreign spy agencies, including an unusually high volume of cyberactivity, requests from unknown entities to visit their facilities and unsolicited offers for investments or joint ventures.