The North Atlantic Treaty Organization recently declared that space is an “operational domain” for the alliance. Though much work remains to actualize an integrated NATO space posture, the affirmation is an important benchmark as NATO scrambles to meet rapidly evolving space and counter-space threats.
Today, space-based assets are an Achilles’ heel of U.S. military operations, representing a vital enabling mechanism upon which success often depends. In addition, great power adversaries could target civilian space assets to wreak havoc on the homeland in ways that redound far beyond the military realm.
America’s enemies have taken notice. “Foreign governments are developing capabilities that threaten others’ ability to use space,” according to a 2019 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment. “China and Russia, in particular, have taken steps to challenge the United States.”
Russia has spent decades building up its counter-space arsenal, from cutting-edge electronic warfare capabilities to probable ground-launched anti-satellite weapons. Moscow believes that “achieving supremacy in space” can enable victory in future conflicts.
China’s People’s Liberation Army apparently agrees. Beijing has also identified space superiority — and space denial — as essential planks in its modern “informatized” military strategy. Indeed, China “continues to improve its counterspace weapons capabilities and has enacted military reforms to better integrate cyberspace, space, and EW into joint military operations,” the DIA assessment read.
These threats are already materializing. Russia is suspected to be behind nearly 10,000 GPS spoofing incidents — affecting over 1,300 civilian navigation systems — according to a report by C4ADS released last June. China has also targeted America’s vulnerability in space, notoriously hacking U.S. weather systems and satellite networks in 2014, after testing an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, which generated a cloud of hazardous space debris.
Fortunately, NATO is beginning to respond. In June 2019, NATO approved a new space policy, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has described as an acknowledgment of NATO’s reliance upon satellites for a range of fundamental military functions. These include, for example, communications, tracking, early warning, surveillance and navigation.
Though only a “framework” for now, it is an important start.
Today the U.S. shares space situational awareness data with its NATO allies and vice versa. Yet, there is potential for deeper collaboration in additional areas such as hosted payloads on satellites and communications. And while there is disagreement within the alliance with respect to space weaponization, this tension should not prevent the alliance from forging ahead on a number of important initiatives. Examples include general space-asset resilience (including within the electromagnetic spectrum), space-reliant communication, synchronized threat warning, command and control, and surveillance and reconnaissance. A space sensor layer, for instance, will be critical to tracking and intercepting Russian hypersonic missiles, an emerging threat against which there is currently no adequate defense.
NATO must take swift action to redress these areas of exposure. But how?
To begin with, NATO could publish a publicly available strategy document analogous to the U.S.-produced National Defense Strategy. This would provide multiyear strategic signposts and, because of its public availability, outside accountability.
As proposed by others, NATO could also run annual “Space Flag” exercises akin to the current “Red Flag” exercises, which today help hone large-scale, multinational joint air operations. “Space Flag” could likewise be used to systematically develop and refine space contingencies against red cell adversaries.
In addition, NATO could explore co-developing NATO-specific space assets from inception, tailored for NATO’s mission and permanently integrated into NATO’s command structure. The United States and Europe’s combined space experience and infrastructure is a comparative advantage vis-a-vis Russia and China. If put to proper use, it could give NATO’s space dominance efforts a significant leg up.
Finally, NATO could entertain the formation of a combined NATO-operated space assets pool, to which existing current member states could contribute existing capacity. A study conducted by the NATO-sponsored Joint Air Power Competence Centre found it “demonstrably feasible” to complete multination, multi-satellite constellations. The study suggested such an approach could emulate NATO partnerships related to the E-3A, C-17 and A-400M platforms but would be “potentially conducive to additional flexibility and innovation.”
The same report cites the Disaster Monitoring Constellation, or DMC, program — an existing multinational satellite-monitoring program used for disaster relief — as an existing example of effectively marshaling space assets. DMC’s shared capabilities “reduce cost, enable sharing, and can be upgraded and expanded to address emerging concerns.” So, too, might a NATO constellation.
Officially recognizing space as an operational domain and establishing a framework for a unified space policy are laudable steps forward for NATO — necessary to counter both present and future threats. But waking up to the threat is not enough. Now is the time for tangible and urgent collective action to secure the ultimate high ground.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Andrew Gabel is a research analyst.