NATO braces for the new space age


NATO foreign ministers have formally recognised outer space as the fifth military frontier alongside air, land, sea and cyber on Wednesday (20 November), in response to growing concerns over protecting satellite and navigation assets from enemy interference.

“Making space an operational domain will help us ensure all aspects are taken into account to ensure the success of our missions,” NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, said after the meeting in Brussels.

“For instance, this can allow NATO planners to make a request for allies to provide capabilities and services, such as satellite communications and data imagery.”

According to current estimates, there are about 2,000 satellites in the Earth’s orbit, half of them owned and operated by NATO members.

So far, the military alliance does not possess its own space technology, and relies on the technical capabilities of its members.

As only nine of the 29 NATO member states are part of a mostly peaceful independent space program, experts point out the announcement has more political than practical character, taking into account the fact that the US, Russia, China and India have long since established strong military structures for averting attacks from outer space.

“Space is part of our daily life here on Earth – it can be used for peaceful purposes, but it can also be used aggressively,” Stoltenberg said.

“Space is essential to the alliance’s deterrence and defence, including the ability to navigate, gather intelligence and to detect missile launches.”

“Satellites can be jammed, hacked or weaponised. Anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications and other services our societies rely on, such as air travel, weather forecasts or banking”, he added.

In June, NATO defence ministers first announced the creation of a space strategy, intending to protect satellites that are important for communication, navigation, early warning systems for rocket launches and situation reports in conflict areas.

The final green light for the adoption of NATO’s space policy is set to be signed into existence in two weeks’ time, when NATO leaders will convene for their anniversary summit in London.

Beyond the military side of potentially intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles in outer space rather than close to the target itself, military deployments and exercises on Earth, countering cyber-attacks on civilian infrastructure – from influencing elections to disturbances of everyday electronic communication flows and navigation – would not be possible.

The Alliance was also seeking to improve the way it shared its assets in space, Stoltenberg, said.

No weapons in space

At present, there is only one weak barrier that forms the basis of international space law and prevents militarisation of space.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty was initially concluded between the US, the UK and the Soviet Union, and has now 109 countries as parties, with another 23 having signed the treaty but not completed ratification.

The accord prohibits the placing of nuclear weapons in space, limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only, and establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.

However, the treaty does not ban military activities within space, military space forces, or the weaponisation of space, and as such does not say anything about conventional weapons as it is mostly a non-armament treaty offering insufficient and ambiguous regulations to newer space activities.

Speaking at a news briefing in Brussels, Stoltenberg assured that NATO has “no intention” to put weapons in space or develop its own space-based capabilities.

“Our approach will remain defensive and fully in line with international law. NATO has no intention to put weapons in space. But we need to ensure our missions and operations have the right support,” he said.

“But,” he added, “we have to relate to the fact that space is becoming more and more important for our military operations and missions. This is to do with the vulnerability and resilience of our civilian societies.”

US, Russia, China and others

Among European NATO members, only France has taken its own approach and presented a national space strategy.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron stressed that he wanted to equip France with “a space defence” and proposed a law for the French military program envisaging a budget of €3.6 billion for the country’s new space defence between 2019 to 2025.

According to Macron, Paris wants to protect its satellites “actively” in the future, while his defence minister, Florence Parly, announced the development of laser weapons.

“When our satellites are threatened, we want to dazzle our opponents’ satellites,” she said this summer.

Meanwhile, the US, China and Russia are already conquering space.

While Russia installed and systematically expanded its space troops as separate units since 2015, the United States announced last year it would organise a new US Space Force command centre, a Space Force as the sixth part of the US military, by 2020.

“It’s a big deal,” US President Donald Trump said at the time, describing space as “the next war-fighting domain”, which would be “pretty obvious to everybody.”

Asked about potential links with Washington’s space strategy earlier on Tuesday, Stoltenberg had refused to be drawn into a discussion about the relationship between US Space Command and NATO’s possible future space-based early-warning capabilities.

“I will not go into the specifics of how we are going to communicate with national space commands and national space capabilities,” he said. “What NATO will do will be defensive, and we will not deploy weapons in space.”

For some time past, NATO has been worried that countries such as Russia or China have long been developing weapons systems that are able to disrupt satellites. For example, in 2007 China tested a special anti-satellite ground missile, while India showed comparable capabilities with Mission Shakti, shooting down its own military satellite.

“We have to be realistic,” a NATO source told EURACTIV in June when the space policy was first introduced, “we will not avoid having a discussion about space regulation very soon to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.”

Protection against such attacks is currently hardly possible, as defensive technologies against such attacks have not yet been tested.

With more actors in the new space era, incidents similar to that in October 2017, when a Russian satellite came close to a French-Italian satellite for military communications, with Paris then accusing Moscow of espionage, are increasingly likely.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox and Georgi Gotev)

Subscribe to our newsletters