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Taking up Space: NATO, Nations and the Rest

Taking up Space: NATO, Nations and the Rest
 Victoria Samson
Washington Office Director for Secure World Foundation

NATO’s latest announcement to open a space center in Ramstein Germany, prompted us to ask a number of questions about NATO’s space capabilities, and the vision of some of today’s key space players. Is the current multilateral order capable of regulating space? And how could countries with no space programs be affected if it isn’t? Space security expert and Washington Office Director for Secure World Foundation, Victoria Samson, answered our questions and broke down the current landscape of space security. 

NATO has announced the creation of a space center, at the Allied Air Command base in Ramstein, Germany, for the monitoring of satellites. What is the plan for this space center, and why now?

What we can observe with the creation of this new space center is that NATO is trying to figure out what to do about space. For a while now, NATO has been left in the dust because a lot of space developments have been happening at the national level rather than the multilateral one. Turning space into a warfighting domain is certainly very significant. But let’s make it clear that we’re not there yet. The US calling it a warfighting domain does not mean that it intends to fight a war in space. In practice, it requires considerable resources and personnel. For its part, NATO has declared space an operational domain, for the collection of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data and such. It is nonetheless a way for NATO to respond to the US’ space developments. That being said, NATO itself does not have its own space capabilities: its space force really operates thanks to the capabilities of its member states. This space center is a first step for NATO to be able to bring together all of the information that it can collect in space, and it’s an effort in progress. 

We can deduce that NATO is trying to figure out its priorities in space and how it can draw upon the resources of its member states’ resources, so that they can coalesce into a common space policy. However, a lot of national security space capabilities are closely held by the member states, so there is no certainty that there is enough willingness to give that up. That being said, Europeans certainly have the experience of collaborating on policies, and the EU is the clearest proof of that. 

The space center is a first step for NATO to be able to bring together all of the information that it can collect in space, and it’s an effort in progress.

It is also understandable that the creation of this center is coming now. The past couple of years have seen a considerable increase in space power. The US, China, France, Japan and India, have all announced military space developments over the past few years. There certainly is a move globally to recognize space as a national and international security enabler. 

How are China and Russia developing their space capabilities? What are NATO's worries?

The Secure World Foundation works on counter space capabilities assessments, observing things such as missiles launched at test targets, or radio frequency interference. There are actions to be watched not just by Russia and China, but also for the US, Iran, North Korea, India, Japan and France. 

These assessments very deliberately include the US. Contextualization is important, and space activities from Russia and China are not happening in a vacuum, but as part of a feedback loop with the US. 

During the Cold War, the US and USSR were doing anti-satellite tests. However, the concern about national technical means - i.e, satellites that help monitor whether enemy ICBMs are coming over the pole - being interfered with so great, that their protection was enshrined in nuclear strategic limitation treaties. In other words, it became clear that counter space capabilities can be very destabilizing, and as such, they gradually petered out. The US had its last such test in 1985, and then there was nothing until China’s anti-satellite missile test in 2007. That was a wake-up call for many, as counter space capabilities were no longer a theoretical consideration. 

We know now that China has been actively developing its anti-satellite program, and quite a few tests have been carried out already. What are they planning on doing with that? The answer is not necessarily simple, as transparency and China don’t always go hand in hand, which leads experts to make deductions and draw conclusions, often assuming the worst about their intentions, whether they are borne out by events or not. 

There is significant national prestige associated with having a counter space program, which Russia surely wants to hold on to. 

China has always said that their policy is against the militarization of outer space. It has thus co-sponsored a treaty with Russia against placing arms in outer space (PPWT). The treaty has not progressed past its draft stage partially because the United States and its allies argue that its focus on space-based weapons is crafted to allow for ground-based interceptors and also that it lacks a strong verification mechanism. 

Russia, for its part, seems to be reinvigorating its proximity operations and its close approach capabilities, by testing having its satellites get near other countries’ satellites without their permission. This seems to be a continuation of the co-orbital satellites it had during the USSR, during which satellites would approach and blow up near targets, allegedly for research purposes. However, we can all recall Russia’s attempts to intercept the transmissions of the Athena-Fidus Franco-Italian satellite in 2018, which prompted France to speed up investments in its military capabilities. That being said, it should be noted that Russia is not the only country with this capability or even engaging in such activities. 

However, in terms of policy and strategy, Russia is not entirely transparent either. It certainly has a legacy from the Cold War, and a massive space program. Let’s not forget that, from 2011 until this summer, with Space X’s successful launch of two NASA astronauts, Russia was the only way humans could get to the International Space Station. The time has come therefore for them to try and figure out a new raison d’être, and the commercial space industry is not it. My deduction is that they’re aiming to veer off towards the military use of space as a primary goal. Either way, there is significant national prestige associated with having a counter space program, which Russia surely wants to hold on to. 

China, on the other hand, has a growing commercial space sector, changing from the entirely state-run model it had, up until a few years ago. Though most of its space capabilities and programs are still state-controlled, a large part of its nascent newspace industry is funded by venture capitalists. 

As for the US, it has already proven that its missile defense interceptors can shoot down a satellite, with Operation Burnt Frost in 2008, in response to China’s 2007 test. The US also has a program called the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). Its purpose is to carry out close approach and surveillance operations around other countries’ satellites, at geosynchronous orbits (36,000 kilometers in altitude) - in essence perpetuating what it accuses other countries of doing. That may serve for the US to understand that just because a nation may have the capabilities, it does not necessarily mean that they are malevolent in intent.

That being said, the rhetoric coming out of the US is disconcerting. Though the Space Force was in the works before Trump, Trump did put his stamp, and his narrative, on it. It therefore became part of a rhetoric that was belligerent and competitive, which has made it seem much more offensive than it can be. 

Ultimately, what presents a risk is not the technology that is deployed, but the intent behind it.

It is also worth mentioning the added element of "lunar competition", built around concerns by some in the American national security establishment that there are orbits around the Moon that could give China the ultimate high ground. Again, these are largely unfounded (and somewhat against the laws of physics), but it does indicate that the politics and competitions on Earth are indeed replicated in space. 

Is the weaponization of space imminent? What are the international mechanisms that can help keep it under check?

It is first and foremost important to understand that as our use of space continues to evolve, it becomes part of how our daily lives function. Our banking systems and national security, to mention only a few, depend on it. In and of itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that space is seen as a national security enabler. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 does allow for space to be used for peaceful purposes, which historically has been interpreted as non-aggressive (allowing military communications to be carried through satellites, for example). 

Space capabilities can be many and varied. Ultimately, what presents a risk is not the technology that is deployed, but the intent behind it. The same satellite can be used to carry out observations for both military and humanitarian uses. It is precisely why the international multilateral order has run into issues with regulating space. Its standard mechanism for dealing with elements of concern, such as weapons, is to ban them, and to make sure that people do not have access to them. However, given the extensive and now vital use of space, this regulation becomes difficult to define and put in place. The UN is finding itself having to transpose its current arms control terminology to suit this new context. A way to go about this is to talk about actions and behaviors instead. If we establish norms, rather than excluding objects, we can call out countries behaving outside the norms. 

That being said, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) together with the Conference on Disarmament have been working on these issues for decades. Meanwhile, space is changing very rapidly, bringing with it huge disruptions in security and the stability of the current order. There are currently over 3,300 active satellites orbiting the Earth, and while the international community has been discussing the evolution of space, over 1,000 satellites were launched in the past year alone. In fact, if all of the planned mega constellations are indeed launched, we could see 107,000 active satellites by 2029. What’s important here is that it will not be nation-states launching them, but people - commercial actors. It will incontestably be a historical shift and a challenge to the international community, which is used to dealing with instability in common domains at the multilateral level.

Against this backdrop, it becomes primordial for all stakeholders to find a way to navigate the adjustment process, and to make useful and efficient agreements. The United Kingdom put forward a resolution during the latest United Nations General Assembly this past fall, with the aim of encouraging discussions about what is responsible space behaviour. The fact that the resolution was passed indicates how relevant the issue is becoming to many countries, even for (or perhaps, especially for) those with no space programs. Most countries are not space powers, but all of us are space users. As such, we all have an interest in fostering a responsible, safe and inclusive use of space.



Copyright : jody amiet / AFP

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