Global Agenda Military Affairs

NATO is looking for ways to use the space for security and defence on Earth

Bianka Niňajová

At the end of April this year, the first-ever NATO Space Symposium on “Deterrence, Defence, and Resilience in and through the Space Domain” was held. Policymakers, space experts, representatives of NATO countries, and various commercial companies and start-ups gathered in Toulouse, France. They discussed how to accelerate the integration of space expertise into the Alliance’s planning and operations. The conference aimed to set the scene for building a long-term NATO vision for space, which should address the question of how to use the rapidly developing space sector for the benefit of collective defence. ” There’s a tremendous amount of things we lose if we lose access to space,” emphasised General Julazadeh of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation Force. According to General Julazadeh, we would not be able to monitor the movement of our own or enemy forces on the ground or to communicate immediately by satellite with our own troops around the world.

The military conflicts of our time increasingly highlight the importance of defensive security in space. Satellite communications, precision navigation and real-time position tracking have become an integral part of modern military operations. NATO, the world’s largest military-political alliance, has already adopted a space policy and declared space as an operational domain in 2019. Space has thus become the fifth operational domain of the alliance after air, land, sea and cyberspace. A year later, the NATO Space Centre was established in Ramstein, Germany, to monitor developments in space security and to serve as a focal point to support the Alliance’s space activities. Various initiatives or strategic concepts are also gradually being developed. In this way, NATO seeks to raise awareness of security in space and, above all, to achieve adequate space defence.

The specific plans of the alliance should be presented to the public at the July summit in Washington, USA. From the statements of the Deputy Commander of the Space Command of the United States of America, Lieutenant General T. James, we know that NATO’s top priority at the moment is to monitor military and non-military activities in space. In this context, Mr James has emphasised, in particular, the growing number of satellites in space and the speed with which they can operate. Based on data from the Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database, there are now 7,560 active satellites in orbit. The United States has the largest number, more than 5,000. The vast majority belongs to commercial companies. This is followed by China with 628 satellites and Russia with 181.

Until 2010, NATO also owned several space satellites. However, the member states of the alliance did not agree to NATO owning the satellites. Today, NATO has access to national communications satellites from France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. However, as space technology is developing rapidly and is very expensive, it is not very profitable for NATO or for individual member states to invest huge sums of money in the field of space technology. A possible solution may, therefore, be cooperation between the Alliance and the commercial sector. However, establishing cooperation between an organisation as huge as NATO itself and commercial companies can be a lengthy and difficult process. Private companies talk about both the different procedures and the complexity of getting in touch with the relevant people. Long and complicated procurement processes can be a big challenge for many companies, as they usually need more funding to sustain themselves during these processes. There is also a lack of information on technologies that NATO might require in the future.

One of the many companies presented at the April symposium was the French company Preligens. The artificial intelligence system offered by the company may be an attractive investment opportunity for NATO. The technology can process space data from satellites in real-time and find out what is happening anywhere in the world, including in sensitive regions such as North Korea, China, and Russia. The location of an airbase is entered into a computer, and it is possible to see in real-time whether military aircraft or other suspicious objects are present. While similar analyses of this type could take two to four hours, this technology can do it in minutes and with 95 per cent accuracy. The technology should even be able to determine the number of weapons the aircraft could carry.

Europe, with its space programme, can also play a key role in the development of NATO’s space sector. In a few weeks, the European Space Agency, Arianespace and the French space agency CNES will launch the Ariane 6 rocket, which will serve both telecommunications and commercial purposes, but its biggest task will be to put scientific satellites into space. These can be an important aspect, particularly in terms of obtaining various types of data that can help to respond more quickly and effectively to crisis situations. In the future, the transport of cosmonauts into space is also not excluded. “Europe is very important because, of course, there are contributions that can be provided by single allies,” says Giorgio Cioni, NATO’s director of armament and aerospace capabilities. In general, such significant contributions of the European continent to space security point to the necessity for all 32 NATO member states to work together.

For now, the most likely scenario that NATO could use in relation to building security in space seems to be a mix of ownership categories. There could be capabilities owned by several allies together, ownership by individual member states, and the aforementioned private sector. In the case of cooperation with the private sector, the Alliance has systems in place to avoid the influence of commercial interests or geopolitical conflicts. US Space Command’s Deputy Director of Policy and Plans confirmed that before entering into any cooperation, individual companies are thoroughly vetted. At the same time, NATO declares that the alliance’s approach to space is fully in accordance with international law. It also emphasises that he has no intention of placing weapons in space.
Developments in the use of space and major advances in space technology have created new opportunities as well as new risks and potential threats. Some countries, such as Russia or China, are developing and testing a wide range of counter-space technologies that could limit and complicate alliance access to space. These are most often anti-satellite missiles and technologies that can blind, dazzle or simply jam the signals of other space assets. Many such attacks have also been part of the war in Ukraine, which is therefore commonly referred to as the world’s first commercial space war. It is all the more important now that NATO’s strategy and plans focus on better understanding the space environment, building awareness of the benefits but also the potential threats of space technologies and, above all, developing mechanisms that will enable us to fully exploit the capabilities of space for a better and safer future here on earth.

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