NATO’s Return to Space

August 3, 2020

The potential for space-based conflict has never been more apparent. Indeed some view it as inevitable, and in preparation states are adopting policies and doctrine to guide military space activities. Multinational security organizations like NATO are beginning to follow this trend as their adversaries act on intent to weaponize space. Last year, NATO took steps forward by launching a new space policy and recognizing space as an operational domain. The policy itself remains classified, blunting its ability to support NATO security goals. Unfortunately, the core security benefits of the new space policy are diminished as classification levels prevent open discourse about allied resolve to protect satellites from hostilities. By not releasing the terms of the policy, the alliance does not clearly outline if and how Article 5 protections apply to space assets. Even if NATO issued unambiguous classified guidance or allies privately share an understanding of how to apply collective defense in space, a classified internal policy cannot communicate credible resolve to an adversary. NATO has yet to concretely affirm the allliance’s commitment to collective defense in outer space.

NATO needs to signal that the alliance has the resolve to adequately fulfil Article 5 commitments in all domains, including outer space. Most importantly, NATO needs to address the incongruence between self-imposed geographic limitations of the NATO Charter and the outer space domain. Article 6 of the alliance’s foundational text affirms that allies may only invoke collective defense in response to armed attacks against territory, vessels, forces, or aircraft stationed on allied territory, in the Mediterranean Sea, or in the Atlantic north of the Tropic of Cancer. Even the most creative interpretations fail to include satellites within this demarcation. After this is resolved, NATO can move forward by issuing declaratory policies that clearly indicate alliance resolve in responding to attacks on space systems.



This classified policy should not be treated as a substitute for an overarching space strategy that defines NATO objectives in space and outlines how to achieve these goals — something the alliance should communicate after establishing declaratory policies. A space strategy, in parallel to its maritime or airpower plans, would help NATO align member states on key tactics, tools, and procedures that can be used in space conflict. At the operational level, this strategy can guide space-centric exercises that signal collective intent to protect space assets.

Today’s Space Environment

The new NATO policy arrives at an unsettled time in space competition, as internationally accepted behavioral norms regarding the use of non-nuclear force in space have not crystalized. Progress in multinational organizations like the Conference on Disarmament has been stymied by profound disagreements, and there is no indication that non-binding measures developed outside multilateral forums would enhance security in space. Absent concrete norms or legal regulations on the use of force in space, some NATO members are pursuing active defenses to protect satellites, and others have demonstrated exoatmospheric capabilities that brew unease about the potential for overt conflict in space. NATO’s adversaries are also seeking advanced counterspace capabilities. For instance, Russia has conducted on-orbit maneuvers that some perceive as hostile, and in April conducted a missile test with anti-satellite applications, which the United States condemned.

These activities drive concerns about the vulnerability of space systems. Many strategists rely on deterrence theory to address these fears. For instance, the United States has pledged to respond to adversaries who interfere with its space assets “with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing.” While not a specific coercive threat, it does encourage adversaries to think twice about activities in space. As part of a sound plan to preserve or restore transatlantic security in the event of conflict in space, NATO should clearly declare that interference with allied space assets will not be tolerated.

How Far Will NATO Go to Protect Space Assets?

With its new classified policy, NATO is not addressing a new domain, but instead a rapidy evolving one. NATO has been active in space since the 1960s. The current policy can be traced to efforts in the mid-2010s to establish overarching space policies for the alliance. NATO outlined how space-based assets would support operations in the 2016 Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations, but the doctrine does not reflect nuanced concepts of spacepower and fails to address the strategic impact of space systems’ inherent vulnerabilities. NATO also neither owns nor operates its own space-based infrastructure, which futher limits the impacts of doctrine and related policies, as the alliance has to rely on states to implement their individual interpretations of alliance policy. While NATO operates ground stations, allied commanders can only rely on satellite capabilities that are leased to or shared with the alliance by member states. Recognizing these shortcomings, the joint doctrine admits that “ultimately, a commander may not receive the desired support.”

NATO has experience embedding space-based tools into terrestrial, maritime, and airpower exercises. However, NATO has yet to build space-specific exercises to signal allied resolve. This may be deliberate, stemming from an assumption that future conflict in outer space would be inextricably linked to Earth-based competition. Even if this assumption is true, it does not absolve NATO from the need to answer questions about potential allied resolve in bringing force to bear against those who interfere with space operations. Clearly, NATO recognizes the benefits of space systems and has considered how to integrate these vital capabilities into security operations. However, without a declaratory policy, it is impossible to gauge how far (if at all) NATO is willing to go to protect key space systems.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg briefly outlined types of cooperation supported by the new policy, notably that alliance members can expect streamlined sharing arrangements for space-based services like encrypted communications and remote sensing. By promoting cooperation, the NATO policy leverages the collective allied portfolio of space-based technologies to supplement lost capabilities and negate adversarial interference with space systems. Many NATO members are undeniably proficient in space technology and can contribute to sharing agreements. NATO members other than the United States have nearly tripled the number of satellites in orbit in the past decade. The increase in satellites improves the potential for sharing unique data and capabilities, and also builds beneficial redundant layers within the NATO space ecosystem. These redundancies help bridge the gap between growing military reliance on satellites and the inherent fragility of space objects. Reducing barriers to sharing space systems and data might also encourage allies to discuss strategic investments to address any gaps.

The policy also establishes NATO as a forum for consultation between allies on space issues, although it is unclear to what extent the policy guides these consultations and what sort of newfound legitimacy the policy affords these consultations. However, it is undeniable that simply announcing a policy, even a classified one, sparks a conversation not only formally within the North Atlantic Council but informally between allies. Unfortunately, sharing and consultation do not address the alliance’s most conspicuous vulnerabilities in space.

Pursuing Protection or Encouraging Inefficiency?

Most NATO members who have dramatically expanded their reliance on satellite infrastructure have done so without commensurate increases in space-based ability to prevent or deter hostile interference with these systems. It is a state’s prerogative to improve resiliency and security, but inadequate security baselines affect both intra-alliance agreements and NATO operations as a whole. Even with sufficient security standards, potential sharing arrangements do not replace sovereign capabilities, principally because allies do not have guaranteed access to shared systems for independent and joint missions. Notably, some NATO allies have reservations about ceding control of space systems to foreign commanders during a crisis. This might drive NATO members away from beneficial redundancies and toward inefficient replication. Furthermore, it is unclear that the current NATO space ecosystem is adequately layered with redundancies to realize the benefits supported by the policy. Extensive sharing might also push states toward fragile interdependencies, and a dearth of sophisticated redundancies would make those capabilities — unsupported by substitute systems as they are — valuable targets. NATO might not be able to wholly address both of these issues, but it can make progress on other concerns.

Despite some allies’ interests in counterspace technology, NATO has not indicated that it has a plan, at any classification level, to integrate such capabilities into its concepts of operation. Furthermore, NATO does not have a comprehensive unclassified strategy to deter adversarial interference with NATO members’ space-based systems. NATO declaratory policy does not delineate space-based thresholds or actions that would trigger NATO to act in collective defense. This is especially troubling, as NATO itself recognizes that commitments to collective defense must “be clearly and unambiguously communicated to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation by any potential adversary.” The resolve that underpins all alliance security activities is severly undermined by the alliance’s inability or unwillingness to openly communicate about space security.

NATO also lacks the tools, tactics, and procedures to effectively operate in space. NATO has neither announced an intent to implement a space situational awareness program to identify and attribute on-orbit interference, nor convened debate on a collective threat-assessment process. These are two core tasks that should be accomplished to support the alliance’s relevance in space security. Shared threat-assessment tools are key for states interested in building meaningful coalitions to address space security. Without agreed-upon threat-assessment processes, allies may arrive at different conclusions about threats to space systems, based in part on their differing abilities to collect and analyze data. This directly impacts the alliance’s ability to come to a consensus decision under the processes outlined by Article 4 of the NATO Charter. While some actors like the United States have robust space situational awareness capabilities, others don’t. NATO members may not have comparable capacities to observe or monitor space activities, leaving allies unable to assess independently collected data. Compounding this, even perfect data cannot protect NATO from disagreements based on differing opinions about a space actor’s intent. Without common methods or an established procedure for space observation and shared threat-assessment tools, NATO may be unable to arrive at a conclusion and may cede initiative back to an adversary.

Extending Collective-Defense Protections to Allied Space Assets

NATO should adopt a space strategy to guide the alliance forward in security-affirming activities. Without a declaratory policy, NATO’s public statements provide an imprecise outline of how NATO will behave in space. The announcement to designate space as an operational domain included a disclaimer that NATO has “no intention to put weapons into space,” but NATO leadership has not ruled out integrating terrestrial counterspace capabilities into NATO concepts of operations. NATO may be setting the groundwork for future space activities, but in the meantime should take specific steps to improve allied security.

At the highest level, NATO has an opportunity to blanket allied space assets with Article 5 protections. Article 6 of the NATO Charter clarifies that the alliance may only invoke collective defense in response to attacks on territory or vessels operating north of the Tropic of Cancer. The geographic limits imposed by the NATO Charter are incongruent with outer space. Revising this language to specifically include satellites, independent of their location above the Earth, would support collective defense. Attacks, harassment, or interference with space objects anywhere in orbit could degrade NATO capabilities in a transatlantic theater. Expanding the parameters of Article 6 would send strong signals to adversaries that threats to space-based assets will not be tolerated.

While this would be an unambiguous and security-reinforcing progression, the recent history of decision-making in Brussels suggests that such an amendment might require an immense political capital investment by those states most interested in protecting space-based assets. There is little reason to expect political will to be suddenly galvanized in an effort to revisit the terms of the core alliance-forming document. Furthermore, while space security has enjoyed the spotlight recently, it may be overshadowed in the future evolving security environment.

Fortunately, other less-taxing activities can benefit allied space security.

NATO should issue an overarching strategy and doctrinal guidance for military spacepower to accompany the policy. NATO has a unique advantage as a collective organization to convene strategists from likeminded but diverse military backgrounds who could cooperatively develop a warfighting strategy for space. A space-focused center of excellence would be well-suited to address this gap, and would be able to leverage institutional credibility. There are many allied countries with distinct interests in space security that might be interested in leading the effort, and a diverse cadre of experts would support the development of a comprehensive space strategy.

At the operational level, NATO can better integrate space technology into security missions. Current NATO doctrine and strategy outline the way allied commanders should leverage space-based systems during combat operations. These policies focus on using space to support other domains, and give no guidance on how the alliance would conduct operations in space. Although NATO will not deploy weapons in space, the alliance can craft contingencies to fit within the bounds of this restriction and not erode the credibility of its pledge not to weaponize space. NATO should take advantage of the current tractability of the normative environment in space to develop sound plans for space-based activities and not wait until immense pressures force leadership to make decisions under duress. This includes considering how to best leverage terrestrial-based counterspace capabilities, including jamming tools, directed energy technologies, and air-, land-, or sea-lauched kinetic interceptors, or if the alliance should avoid using specific weapons entirely.

The absence of a crisis in space is not an excuse to neglect the importance of integrating new space activities with structural and systematic processes. Integrated situational awareness is crucial as NATO expands into space. The various levels of maturity in sovereign space systems within NATO, combined with the federated structure of the alliance and the complex impacts of space technology, demand effective integration. This integration process should focus on implementing robust baseline security standards for space systems to enable cooperation without concerns about inviting threats through the weakest security node. Another focus should be ensuring the alliance has the ability to arrive at political decisions about taking collective action in space.

The NATO roadmap to better space security starts with defining a strategy and a concept of operations to reestablish an effective deterrence posture in space. Based on these developments, NATO will be able to focus joint training and exercises to enhance allied capacities to prevent, defend against, and recover from attacks on space infrastructure. In turn, these activities will demonstrate allied resolve to protect and leverage space systems in broader transatlantic security missions.



Benjamin Silverstein is a researcher with experience in the National Laboratory network conducting research on the use of counterspace technologies to support deterrence goals. His past research at the United Nations offers a field guide for identifying arms races in the wild, with special attention to arms racing in outer space. The views expressed here are the personal views of the author and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is or has been affiliated. (LLNL-JRNL-810999.)

Image: NASA