BRUSSELS — NATO foreign ministers have for the first time formally declared space as an “operational domain.”
The announcement at a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday means space will now be regarded as equally important for NATO alongside air, land, sea and cyberspace. The move illustrates the growing significance of space for the alliance.
“This can allow NATO planners to make requests for allies to provide capabilities and services, such as hours of satellite communications,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.
“Space is part of our daily life here on Earth. It can be used for peaceful purposes. But it can also be used aggressively. Satellites can be jammed, hacked or weaponized. Anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications and other services our societies rely on, such as air travel, weather forecast or banking,” he said. “Space is also essential to the alliance’s deterrence and defense, including the ability to navigate, gather intelligence and to detect missile launches.”
It is estimated that about 2,000 satellites currently orbit Earth, with half owned by NATO member countries.
Ministers agreed that space is “essential” to NATO’s deterrence and defense, from its ability to navigate and track forces, to satellite communications and detecting missile launches.
The agreement comes ahead of next month’s NATO leadership meeting in London, England, and it places space firmly on to the agenda when NATO military commanders plan or review the alliance’s posture and activities.
NATO insists it has “no intention” to put weapons in space or develop its own space-based capabilities. Stoltenberg on Wednesday specifically said NATO has no plans to “weaponize space.”
“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 because space is so important for navigation, communications and for many other things.”
NATO’s largest ally, the United States, recently stood up a Space Command.
Speaking at a news briefing on Tuesday, Stoltenberg had refused to be drawn into a discussion about the relationship between U.S. 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.”
Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.