NATO’s approach to space

  • Last updated: 17 Jun. 2021 13:01

Space is a dynamic and rapidly evolving area, which is essential to the Alliance’s deterrence and defence. In 2019, Allies adopted NATO’s Space Policy and recognised space as a new operational domain, alongside air, land, sea and cyberspace. This policy guides NATO’s approach to space and ensure the right support to the Alliance’s operations and missions in such areas as communications, navigation and intelligence. Through the use of satellites, Allies and NATO can respond to crises with greater speed, effectiveness and precision.

© SpaceX Starlink Mission

  • Space is increasingly important to the Alliance's and Allies' security and prosperity.
  • Space capabilities bring benefits in multiple areas from weather monitoring, environment and agriculture, to transport, science, communications and banking.
  • The information gathered and delivered through satellites is critical for NATO activities, operations and missions, including collective defence, crisis response and counter-terrorism.
  • Space is becoming more crowded and competitive, satellites are vulnerable to interference. Some countries, including Russia and China, have developed and tested a wide range of counter-space technologies.
  • In 2019, Allies adopted a new Space Policy and declared space an operational domain.
  • NATO remains a key forum for Allies to share information and coordinate activities on various space-related issues.
  • NATO's approach to space will remain fully in line with international law.
  • In October 2020, Defence Ministers decided to establish a NATO Space Centre at Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany.
  • At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO recognised that attacks to, from or within space present a clear challenge to the security of the Alliance and could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

 

The role of space in a changing security environment

Space is essential to the Alliance's deterrence and defence. Space underpins NATO's ability to navigate and track forces, to have robust communications, to detect missile launches and to ensure effective command and control. More than half of the 3,000 active satellites orbiting the Earth belong to NATO members or companies based on their territory.

NATO Allies increasingly rely on space for various national security tasks, as well as military operations around the globe. Space data, products and services are a critical enabler and directly support other operational domains.

The evolution in the uses of space and rapid advances in space technology have created new opportunities, but also new risks, vulnerabilities and potential threats. While space can be used for peaceful purposes, it can also be used for aggression. Satellites can be hacked, jammed or weaponised, and anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications and affect the Alliance's ability to operate.

Some countries, including Russia and China, have developed and tested a wide range of counter-space technologies that could restrict Allies’ access to, and freedom to operate in space. Various risks to space systems are increasing and can harm Allies' security and commercial interests.

NATO’s approach to space and key roles

NATO is an important forum for Allies to share information, increase interoperability and coordinate actions. The Alliance is not aiming to develop space capabilities of its own and will continue to rely on national space assets. NATO's approach to space will remain fully in line with international law. NATO has no intention to put weapons in space.

From a security and defence perspective, space is critical for the Alliance, including in the following areas:

  • positioning, navigation and timing, which enables precision strikes, tracking of forces or search and rescue missions;
  • early warning, which helps to ensure force protection and provides vital information on missile launches;
  • environmental monitoring, which enables meteorological forecasting and mission planning;
  • secure satellite communications, which are essential for missions to enable consultation, command and control;
  • intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which are crucial for situational awareness, planning and decision-making.

To implement space as an operational domain, the Alliance is enhancing its space domain awareness and common understanding of the space environment, including threats and risks. Maintaining situational awareness and reliable access to space services are critical to ensure the success of NATO’s operations, missions and activities.

To that end, at the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO announced plans to develop a Strategic Space Situational Awareness System (3SAS) at NATO Headquarters. This capability will allow the Alliance to better understand the space environment and space events, and their effects across all domains. The system is supported by EUR 6.7 million funding from Luxembourg.

The Alliance is also integrating space in training and exercises, operational planning, capability development, as well as in its innovation efforts. Emerging technologies are transforming the space domain and NATO will take advantage of these developments to maintain its technological edge. In this regard, NATO’s Science and Technology Organization network helps to leverage the scientific and technological capacity among Allies and partners.

To allow NATO forces to communicate more securely and quickly, NATO is investing over EUR 1 billion in procuring satellite communications services for the period of 2020-2034. This is the Alliance's biggest-ever investment in satellite communications, which is being provided by NATO nations and enabling more resilient and flexible communications with ships at sea, air assets and troops across the globe.

NATO’s Space Centre

Based on the NATO Defence Ministers’ decision in October 2020, the NATO Space Centre will serve as a focal point to support NATO operations and missions, share information and help coordinate Allies’ efforts.

The Space Centre reaches out to national space entities to ensure that NATO commanders have access to required space data and services. Streamlining requests for space products through a single entity will increase NATO’s responsiveness and support decision making in a timely manner.

The Centre is building upon capabilities and personnel already in place at Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany. Over the next few years, the Centre will continue to grow, ensuring the required capacity across NATO and its military command structure.

Evolution

At the 2018 Brussels Summit, NATO Leaders recognised that space is a highly dynamic and rapidly evolving area, which is essential for the Alliance's security, and agreed to develop an overarching NATO Space Policy.

At the June 2019 Defence Ministers' meeting, Allies adopted NATO's Space Policy.

At the December 2019 Leaders' Meeting in London, Allies declared space a fifth operational domain, alongside air, land, sea and cyberspace. In their declaration, NATO Leaders stated: "We have declared space an operational domain for NATO, recognising its importance in keeping us safe and tackling security challenges, while upholding international law."

On 22 October 2020, Defence Ministers decided to establish a NATO Space Centre at Allied Air Command in Ramstein.

At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO Leaders stated that “attacks to, from, or within space present a clear challenge to the security of the Alliance, the impact of which could threaten national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security, and stability, and could be as harmful to modern societies as a conventional attack.  Such attacks could lead to the invocation of Article 5.  A decision as to when such attacks would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis.”