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NATO Space policy: Integrated response to incoming threats

NATO Space policy: Integrated response to incoming threats

NATO has been constantly facing challenging impediments of both internal and external nature. Indeed, such obstacles have been hindering Alliance’s development, yet they also determined the direction of the Alliance’s course of activities. In the act of enlargement, it was reaching beyond its frontiers of operation and extending to new dimensions such as outer space. Space issues seem to have become one of the prioritized topics of the Alliance’s agenda.

Recently, during the meeting of the Organization’s Defense ministers, new overarching space policy has been approved. Moreover, the initiative to present space strategy during the upcoming London summit enables the creation of the fully operational domain at the ‘final frontier’. Nowadays this realm is the vital and contested dimension, and the prospect of creating a full-fledged Space strategy by NATO enables it to operate in line with the US Space force ideas and prove its relevance in response to the Donald Trump’s criticism of the Alliance.

Read also: Integration of Allies’ National Cyber Effects into NATO Operations and Missions

 This article will deal mainly with figuring out how does the Alliance build its line of operation in the outer space, as well as identifying main threats, which other state actors pose to the security in this realm, and arguing why the Organization should not only rely on the capabilities of its members, but also develop an integrated approach to the new environment.


The outbreak of the Cold War brought about the evolution of the space industry, fueled mainly by the competition between the United States and the USSR. The capabilities which could be ensued from the usage of such a cutting edge space technologies drastically changed the settings of the international system. Satellites alone provided permanent real-time surveillance of the enemy, communication between command centers and gathering of intelligence. The main problem back in the day was that the majority of the astronautics industry was state-centered, which meant that space industry resources and pertinent policy were determined by Washington and Moscow. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 ushered in the era when satellites became important devices for the interception of intelligence. The need to acquire sensitive information triggered the situation when NATO had to create its own space strategic communication network. In the 1960s the Alliance gradually started to employ satellite technologies and effected the launch of the new family of British military communication satellites Skynet. Yet after operating four generations of NATO-family satellites, the Alliance decided to rely exclusively on the space capabilities of its members. The main problem identified in the Alliance’s attitude towards space is that it is missing a holistic approach to the subject.[1]

Main space-relating missions

Even though nowadays the Organization is not in the possession of any space-based assets, it leases those from its members to integrate the space realm for its purposes. The NATO members possess 60% of all the satellites operable for the time being, so the Alliance can conduct comprehensive space policy, without having its assets.[2]

Space situational awareness. The advancement of private ventures, encouraged by and cooperating with governments for pursuing commercial opportunities, arising out of cargo delivery, manned flights and other activities has resulted not only into a developed civil space sector, but also into greater amount of space debris able to destruct space assets. In the meantime, although remaining state-run, the military sector has also been subject to changes, emanating from the new threats of which we will speak in the next paragraphs. NATO Situational Awareness contributes to space control operations including data collection about the space environment and tracking operational status of assets and any potential threats related to Space. The monitoring space environment is important both for mitigating consequences of debris problem and for combating the danger posed by the Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons as well as other military equipment. For the time being NATO does not possess integral and all-round Space Situational Awareness strategy, which is to be created if the Alliance plans to remain the kingpin of international security. [3]

Satellite communication. In order to maintain strategic situational awareness, global coverage and connectivity of all critical assets are required. Strategic communication is the constituent pillar of the NATO, so SATCOM technologies proved to be pivotal with the deployment of the abovementioned Skynet program, which means that NATO has sufficiently mature satellite communication assets. Notably, despite the fact that the United States represents 70% of the NATO space assets, European countries are the main provider of SATCOM technologies. [2] Nowadays, in addition to British satellites, NATO employs the capabilities of French SYRACUSE and Italian SICRAL satellites. The NATO SATCOM Post-2000 (NSP2K) [3] program is being effected under the auspices of those nations. Nowadays satellite communication is under constant threat of being exposed to cyber-attacks. Chatham House paper on NATO Space-based cybersecurity policy points out that “influencers and policymakers are struggling to grasp the full impact of cyber vulnerabilities in the context of both space-based assets and strategic systems”. [4]

Positioning, navigation and timing of the Alliance are reliant on the United States Global Positioning System (GPS) for space support services. GPS is utilized both for civil purposes, helping road-users and other civilians with navigation, and for military purposes, directing troops during military operations. In addition, such Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) as Galileo satellite constellation, which is operated by the countries of the European Union, can be important element to enhance the resilience of the Alliance, due to the fact that not only potential adversaries such as the Chinese People’s Republic and the Russian Federation possess independent GNSS, BeiDou and GLONASS respectively, but are also trained to fight in a PNT-degraded environment.[5] The main problem of incorporation of the Galileo system is its multilateral nature because it includes six non-aligned EU states, which makes its full integration into NATO military activities much more difficult.[6]


Space debris. A growing interest in outer space as a military frontier and commercial hub leads to the greater number of objects deployed on the orbits. Today, space is an extremely contested environment. For instance, a limited number of slots available for satellites in geosynchronous orbit has already been occupied by the states and commercial actors, which leads to jamming and interference. More than sixty years of such activities have brought about a dangerous situation when almost a million fragments from 1 cm to 10 cm and around 34 000 pieces of debris more than 10 cm are floating around the Earth and are able to cause total demolition of an asset. [7] The hazard occurs during impacts, with those pieces reaching speeds to 16 km/s colliding with operating space objects. Their Security of space assets and the “sustainability of outer space activities” are endangered by the presence of space debris and other objects coming from the space.

ASAT weapons. There are several sources from which space debris are created, however, anti-satellite tests are the most dangerous inasmuch they do not only lead to a greater amount of debris, but also raise urgent questions of space militarisation, which are to be addressed by NATO. Such technologies are used to destroy satellites for military purposes. The most notorious example is 2007 China’s Anti-satellite test, when the world was bewildered by the Beijing’s decision to destroy one of its weather satellites by means of a kinetic kill vehicle, which left hundreds of satellite debris and proved the capability of the People’s Liberation Army to protect from satellite surveillance, whenever full-scale war breaks out. [8] To date, Chinese army exploits anti-satellite rockets, such as DN-3, able to destroy satellites at orbits up to 1000 km.  The dual nature of space assets, used both for civil and military purposes, hinders to identify the exact number of all anti-satellite tests, which are often disguised. Moreover, the stationing of ASAT weapons is not expressly prohibited by any Space law international instrument. The possession by Russia and China of such anti-satellite technologies creates a dangerous situation [9], which NATO shall take into consideration, inasmuch to-date it has no programs which would help it to defend against ASAT weapons.

Cyberwarfare. Yet in some cases of warfare adversary’s satellites will not even have to be demolished. It has already been pointed out that SATCOM can be easily exposed to hacker attacks, so the intrudes would physically be able to gain access to the systems and “either compromise them for later use or alter their instructions”. The root of the vulnerability lies in the obsolete hardware and unprotected software, which can be easily hacked e.g. in the scenario of Russian cyberattacks. Thus, cyberthreat to space-based command and control systems is to be addressed.

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All NATO operational domains rely heavily on the support of space assets, so the outline of a holistic approach towards outer space frontier is of the utmost importance. Given changing Astropolitics trends, a commercial revolution of the space industry and strengthening of China and Russia, the Alliance’s decision to push on with the development of the ever-integrated Space policy approach seems to be suitable for demonstrating its relevance, resilience, and far-sightedness.

Dmitrii Borzenko, Senior Fellow for Space Policy in Think Tank ADASTRA


1.    Remuss, Nina-Louisa. "NATO and Space: Why is Space Relevant for NATO?." ESPI Perspectives 40 (2010).

Retrieved from: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/124749/ESPI_Perspectives_40.pdf

2.    Giudice, Flavio, and John Patrick. “The Key Role of Space Support in NATO Operations.” The Three Swords Magazine, no. 32, 2017, pp. 58–65.,

Retrieved from: www.jwc.nato.int/images/stories/_news_items_/2017/SPACESUPPORT_NATO_ThreeSwordsJuly17.pdf.

3.    Single, Thomas. "NATO Space Operations Assessment." Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) (2009).

Retrieved from: https://www.japcc.org/wp-content/uploads/NATO-Space-Ops-Assessment-Jan-09.pdf

4.    Unal, Beyza.” Cybersecurity of NATO’s Space-based Strategic Assets”, Chatham House (2019)

Retrieved from: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2019-06-27-Space-Cybersecurity-2.pdf

5.    McDermott, Roger N. "Russia’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities to 2025." ICDS Report, September (2017)

Retrieved from: https://icds.ee/wp-content/uploads/2018/ICDS_Report_Russias_Electronic_Warfare_to_2025.pdf

6.    Vassen, Rim. “Is NATO Ready for Galileo?”, Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2019)

Retrieved from: https://www.japcc.org/is-nato-ready-for-galileo/

7.    Space debris by the numbers, ESA

Retrieved from: https://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Safety/Space_Debris/Space_debris_by_the_numbers

8.    Zississ, Carin “China’s Anti-Satellite Test”, Council on Foreign Relations (2007)

Retrieved from: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-anti-satellite-test

9.    Огляд програм та вимог керівних документів країн НАТО стосовно космічної ситуаційної обізнаності / М.Ф. Пічугін, Д.В. Карлов, О.О. Клімішен та ін. // Збірник наукових праць Харківського національного університету Повітряних Сил. – 2017. – No 2 (51). – С. 59-63.

Retrieved from: http://www.hups.mil.gov.ua/periodic-app/article/17710/zhups_2017_2_13.pdf