STUTTGART, Germany — Global military leaders have upped their investments in the space domain over the past several years, warning of a growing reliance on vulnerable assets in orbit. As the NATO alliance pushes a forward-leaning agenda ahead of the Brussels summit, its level of involvement in this new domain remains to be seen.

The marquee element of this year’s summit, taking place June 14, is the NATO 2030 agenda, which includes recommendations to strengthen the alliance’s roles and ability to tackle current and future threats. One such proposal is to invest more holistically and strategically in emerging and disruptive technologies, and seven in particular were identified as key areas of focus in NATO’s ”Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040″ report.

Space is one of those technologies, but in the lead-up to the Brussels summit, it barely merited a mention from alliance leaders, who are prioritizing new strategies related to artificial intelligence and data computing.

In a June 5 virtual pre-summit appearance at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s sole nod was a simple statement: “Since 2014, we have implemented the largest reinforcement of our collective defense in a generation, enhancing our ability to defend all allies, on land, at sea, in the air, in cyberspace and in space.”

Stoltenberg tends to be careful when noting NATO’s approach to space will remain defensive and focused on early-warning, communications and navigation capabilities. “NATO has no intention to put weapons in space, but we need to ensure our missions and operations have the right support,” he said in 2019.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg

This tone differs from the rhetoric of U.S. military and government leaders, who have called space a “war-fighting domain.” This juxtaposition leaves observers wondering what NATO’s role will be in the space domain moving forward.

Sovereign activity

There are opportunities for NATO’s headquarters to serve as a “single point of contact,” coordinating its members’ space efforts, said Nicholas Nelson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. That’s because several members are individually investing more funds than ever into space.

The U.S. Defense Department created the Space Force as the newest American military branch in December 2019, along with several new agencies meant to better prioritize the space domain. The department’s fiscal 2022 budget request, released in May, included more than $17 billion for the Space Force, about $2.2 billion more than Congress appropriated for the service in the previous fiscal year.

If approved, Space Force funding would take up about 2.5 percent of the total FY22 Pentagon budget. Funding for both space-related procurement as well as research and development would grow in 2022: procurement dollars would rise from $2.3 billion in 2021 to $2.8 billion in 2022; and R&D funds would grow from $10.5 billion in 2021 to $11.3 billion in 2022, per budget documents.

Across the pond, the United Kingdom is expected to spend about £7 billion (U.S. $10 billion) on its space portfolio over the next 10 years. In April, it stood up the new U.K. Space Command as a joint command staffed by Navy, Army and Air Force personnel as well as members of the nation’s civil service. The 2021 budget for Space Command is expected to be about £51.8 million, according to a Defence Ministry spokesperson.

In 2019, the French Armed Forces Ministry created its own, separate Space Force Command — known in French as “la Commandement de L’espace.” The ministry announced plans to invest €700 million (U.S. $852 million) in the new unit through 2025. That’s on top of the €3.6 billion France committed to spend on the military space domain as part of the 2019-2025 Military Program Law.

Observers are also watching how other NATO allies may step forward in the space domain. Germany, for example, is a country where “despite making all the right noises, there is still a reticence to actually describe space as a war-fighting domain,” Nelson said.

What’s NATO’s role among the stars?

But not all nations must set up their own satellite programs or build launch capabilities, nor are all capable of doing so. NATO could help identify areas in the value chain for various nations to participate, Nelson noted.

NATO headquarters could also help set the tone for space-based nomenclature and definitions across the alliance, he added, which would ensure all members “are reading from the same sheet of music” and would streamline programs and processes.

“Different countries define different parts of the space value chain, using a similar but different language that means different things. If no one is speaking the same language, so to speak, it’s really tough to get a baseline of understanding,” Nelson said.

The discussion surrounding the space domain has changed drastically over the past two to three decades, according to Xavier Pasco, director of the French think tank Foundation for Strategic Research, who spoke during a recent hearing before the French Senate’s foreign affairs and defense committee. He noted that nations — particularly, but not exclusively, the United States — have started to speak of space as an “infrastructure” or a “commodity” that will serve the wider global economy. That change in rhetoric will inevitably elicit a shift in government approaches and decision-making, he added.

NATO has made strides in honing its focus on space. In 2019, the alliance agreed to found the NATO Space Centre, based at the alliance’s Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, with the goal of supporting space domain awareness activities through the coordination of data, products and services among members.

But more can and must be done at a coalition level to ensure allies keep pace with the massive investments made by peer adversaries like Russia and China, although the alliance is not yet fully aligned on its policies toward the latter, Nelson said.

“You can’t afford in this era of great power competition to have ... mass duplication” of capabilities or assets, he explained.

Interoperability, a key goal of NATO in every operational domain, will also suffer in space if the alliance does not develop a common set of priorities and efforts, Nelson predicted, noting that multiple space-based capabilities are coming online within the alliance’s community, such as the U.S.-based next-generation GPS III satellite system and the European Space Agency’s Galileo platforms.

“If you’re not building interoperability from both a strategy, policy and obviously technological standpoint, we’re not going to be able to fight together as an alliance in a meaningful way,” Nelson said. “It’s going to leave massive gaps in our ability to achieve one of NATO’s core aims, which is collective defense.”

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.

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