#Decryption – NATO: Paving its way to space

Since its founding, 70 years ago, NATO has mainly focused on the threat posed by conventional warfare, but nowadays, conflicts have drastically changed. Defending the sea, land and airspace of NATO members, may soon no longer suffice.

Outer space has always been an important area of antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union since the Cold War. Space security has always been a crucial element of strategic balance, shaping American and Soviet national security policies. The world’s two great superpowers each spent large portions of their GDP on developing military technologies, starting the Space Race. 

In this day and age space-based systems support our modern environment by providing communication, weather forecasting, tracking, navigation, targeting capabilities, and much more. NATO command structures have not issued any public military policy regarding space operations, the only published document so far is the Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations. Unfortunately, the paper only underlines the role of space support in operational planning, instead of outlining defensive and offensive space tactics, research, or development. 

As an example, space can be used in external security missions such as the EU military Crisis Management Operations EUFOR Chad/Central African Republic, that rely on satellites for secure communication between the Operation Headquarters and the units deployed on the field, and also satellite imagery for mapping. Intelligence satellites can also be used to provide internal security, to risk map during environmental disasters or detecting terrorist camps. Hence, the growing competitiveness in outer space between states on one hand, and private companies on the other, present new challenges to protecting our systems from physical and cyber-attacks, showing once more, the relevance of the matter at hand.

Ballistic and kinetic warfare

The Outer Space Treaty signed on 27 January 1967, forms the basis of international space law, and bans using, testing or storing nuclear weapons in Space. The Convention on International Liability for Damage caused by space objects signed in 1972 expands the liability rules previously created in the Outer Space Treaty. 

Most of the space defence and warfare are composed of space weaponry and anti-space weaponry. Ballistic warfare ranges from simple measures as simple as ground and space anti-missiles to rail guns, space-based laser, orbital mines. Almost all the weapons are meant for an Earth to space use such as anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) designed to incapacitate, damage, or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes. China, Russia, and the US all possess the capabilities. Furthermore, India’s recent development of a layered missile defence system indicates that it is likely to acquire the competence of direct ascent ASAT. Japan, France, and Israel can likewise be considered important parties. 

Space-to-earth and space-to-space weaponry do not currently exist, but any satellite can at least theoretically be converted into such a weapon. Member States of NATO such as the United States of America and France already have multiple anti-missiles weapons. For example, the United States contributes the NATO BMD through its EPAA or European Phased Adaptive Approach, with multiple countries such as Turkey, Spain, Poland, and Romania hosting their multi-mission BMDs. These facts show the need for NATO to have its own BMDs, even if Member States and allies’ own ground-based air and missile defence systems, or other complementary ships as a force protection especially with the Russian and Chinese threats.

Electronic warfare and cybersecurity 

Cyber threats to the security of the Alliance are becoming more frequent, complex, destructive and coercive. Electronic warfare concerns domains such as surveillance, communications, and positioning systems. Non-kinetic warfare is more likely to involve the dismissal of vital information flows and control an enemy’s forces, rather than the destruction of its space-based assets. Different techniques can be used. The first one is called “jamming”, it consists of an intentional interference in signal transmission and reception through the use of radio noise and electromagnetic signals: global navigation satellite system signals are more vulnerable to jamming attacks. “Spoofing” information through cyber means is a more sophisticated form of jamming. It resides in manipulating the information about the location, position, and condition of a satellite. Finally, “dazzling”, is blinding a satellite with a laser, if it is powerful enough it can burn satellite sensors and disable them.

NATO has been active in space since the 1960s, starting with its own communication satellites, weather and intelligence activities, its main focus in cyber defence is to protect NATO’s networks and enhance across the Alliance. Cyber protection is part of NATO’s essential task of collective defence. The NATO Computer Incident Response Capability based at SHAPE in Mons, Belgium protects the Alliance’s own networks by providing centralized and round-the-clock cyber defence support. In order to increase its cyber defence capacities, NATO continues to improve the state of cybersecurity education, training, and exercises. 

Source : NASA

Important steps to prepare NATO to proceed with space operations 

A NATO space policy needs to be developed by agreeing to a common set of military objectives and operational requirements and by creating a cooperative architecture that links civil and military space capabilities and allow their access by the member states. Secondly, NATO has to increase its level of cooperation with other organizations such as the European Union. Indeed, while NATO doesn’t have its own satellite, the EU has the Galileo satellite. EU space capabilities should be seen as complementary rather than competitive to NATO’s structures. Finally, NATO needs to ensure integrated military planning in order to achieve an optimal level of operational support, knowing that the main challenge would be to incorporate the use of its Member States’ national assets into its outlining.

Numerous questions still need to be addressed: does an attack on one country’s satellite or space-based systems trigger the 5th article of the North Atlantic Treaty concerning collective defence? How can NATO assure access to the space domain and make better use of it? In case of warfare, how can we deal with space debris?


Racha Cherrat
USG Finance

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.