BRUSSELS — NATO plans to launch a new effort this week to streamline the process of gathering, disseminating, and distributing the reams of data collected in space for use by the alliance command structure.
The “Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space” (APSS) initiative will allow NATO to better support operations and improve intelligence sharing among its commanders by more quickly receiving and transmitting data gathered from a variety of space-based sensors operated by its member-nations, as well as from commercial data and imagery.
The initiative comes as the space domain has increasingly become “more crowded and competitive,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a Feb. 13 press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
“This week, I expect our allies will agree to establish a new virtual network of national and commercial satellites,” Stoltenberg said. “It will allow our allies to increase the sharing of space-based data with the NATO command structure, facilitating better navigation, communication, and early warning of missile launches.”
The alliance will formally launch the initiative during its annual defense ministerial, which will be held at NATO headquarters Feb. 14-15. A letter of intent (LOI) is expected to be signed on Wednesday, with a memorandum of understanding to be signed in the future, NATO officials told reporters Monday during a separate briefing.
Together, the “virtual constellation” of associated space-based systems, sensors, and data collected from those systems will be known as Aquila. The name, which is Latin for “eagle,” is meant to symbolize sharp vision, foresight, and the ability to survey large areas from great heights, reflecting the capabilities of satellite systems providing persistent surveillance from space, according to NATO.
The members participating in APSS will decide their own level of involvement in the project, said Wendy Gilmour, NATO assistant secretary-general for defense investment. For now, participation is open to all 30 member nations, as well as NATO member-invitees Finland and Sweden, she said.
Some members may choose to support the initiative with access to their own space-based sensors and systems, while nations that don’t have their own constellations might contribute with data collection and analysis capabilities, or simply with funding to help NATO purchase data or imagery collected by commercial satellites, Gilmour added.
Space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data collection is vital to NATO’s intelligence enterprise, said David Cattler, assistant secretary-general for joint intelligence and security. Observers expect over 24,000 satellite launches to take place between 2022 and 2031, up from about 5,500 launches taking place in the prior decade, Cattler said, quoting data released by the Satellite Industry Association.
The ongoing Russian offensive in Ukraine – fast approaching the one-year mark – has also demonstrated “the real need and the decisive role of intelligence derived from space data, products, and services,” not only for military requirements, but also to support humanitarian efforts, track and aid internally displaced populations, and to reinforce critical infrastructure, he noted.
From a collection management viewpoint, APSS will be “sensor-agnostic and solution-agnostic” to ensure greater flexibility and speed of data collection, Cattler noted. The specific systems, capabilities, and companies that may contribute to greater space-based data collection via APSS have yet to be determined, officials said.
NATO already collects such space-based ISR data, but the APSS construct will allow it to be better organized and integrated, said Ludwig Decamps, general manager of NATO’s Communication and Information Agency (NCIA), which will be the implementing body for the new initiative
“We are taking a data-centric approach,” he told reporters on Monday. “This is not so much about connecting systems with each other. It’s really bringing data into the alliance, and making that data available in usable formats across the alliance.”
To date, 17 nations have been tied to the initiative – although more members may join prior to the memorandum of understanding being signed, Gilmour noted. The nations who have already expressed interest in signing the LOI include: Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States, according to NATO.
Luxembourg is providing €16.5 million ($17.7 million) in seed money, which will allow NATO to set up an “expert team” and begin work on the integration of systems and data, per the alliance. For now, officials would not comment on how much annual funding the initiative may receive.
There may be opportunities to work with other nascent NATO initiatives, such as the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and the NATO Innovation Fund, Gilmour added.
The APSS initiative keeps in line with the role NATO outlined for itself for the space domain, as described in the 2019 space policy, publicly released in early 2022. In the document, the alliance describes itself as a point of contact between its members when it comes to coordinating functions or discussing policy issues, but refuses to become an “autonomous space actor” itself.
The discovery, and subsequent Feb. 4 shoot-down, of a Chinese balloon that entered U.S. airspace, highlights the need for NATO to ramp up its information-sharing, particularly from space-based capabilities, Stoltenberg said.
“What we saw over ... the United States last week, is part of a pattern where China, but also Russia, are increasing their intelligence and surveillance activities against these allies with many different platforms. We see it in cyber, and we see it with satellites, more and more satellites, and we see them with balloons,” he said.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.