The North Atlantic Treaties Organization (NATO) has issued a formal policy statement, which says that any attack on a member’s assets in space will be considered an attack on the entire alliance. This policy comes mere weeks after Russia put the ISS and its crew at danger when test firing an anti-satellite missile, and during a time of unprecedented buildup by that government of forces along the Ukraine border.
BACKGROUND: NATO MEMBER PROTECTION KEY TO WORLD PEACE
Formed in 1949, NATO is a political/military alliance between two North American countries, 27 European countries, and one Eurasian country. In those 70+ years, the group has functioned as a bulwark against unwanted expansion by Russia, China, or other non-member nations that could threaten the security of current members.
In hopes of extending that cooperative defensive posture to those same member’s assets in space, the group issued a classified space policy back in 2019. Now, the group has updated that policy publicly, with the issuance of a new directive designed to further refine the group’s position on defending member nations’ space assets.
ANALYSIS: ANY ATTACK ON A NATO MEMBER IS AN ATTACK ON ALL
“In security and defence terms, space is increasingly contested, congested and competitive and requires the Alliance to be able to operate in a disrupted, denied and degraded environment,” the new policy reads. “Allies’ space capabilities could become a high priority target given the advantages that space systems provide in conflict and given Allies’ dependence on these systems to enable operations.”
The policy then goes on to summarize the range of capabilities shown by foreign adversaries, including “a diverse range of counter-space capabilities to disrupt, degrade, deceive, deny, or destroy capabilities and services on which Allies – and the Alliance – might critically depend.”
For instance, the policy also notes, these adversary assets and capabilities could:
Hold space assets at risk, thereby complicating NATO’s ability to take decisive action in a crisis or conflict.
Deny or degrade Allies’ and NATO space-based capabilities critical to battlespace management and situational awareness and the ability to operate effectively in a crisis or conflict.
Create impacts on Allies’ space systems that are damaging or disruptive to economic or public life and violate the principle of free use of space, yet fall below the thresholds of threat of force, use of force, armed attack or aggression.
“It is worth noting that both space-based (satellites) and ground-based (ground stations and launchers) segments, as well as the links between them, can be the targets of such capabilities,” the policy points out. The same document also highlights the main operating tenants of the new policy that will guide NATO’s response to any threat to member nation or even non-member nation assets that threaten world peace. They are:
Space is essential to coherent Alliance deterrence and defence.
Space is an inherently global environment and any conflict that extends into space has the potential to affect all users of space. Even in cases where NATO is not involved in conflict, Allies’ space systems could be affected.
The free access, exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes is in the common interest of all nations. NATO and Allies will continue to carry out all activities in outer space in accordance with international law, including the UN Charter, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation and understanding.
Space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.
Allies will retain jurisdiction and control over their objects in space5 as well as full authority and sovereignty over their space capabilities and resources.
Considering that the Alliance is not aiming to develop space capabilities of its own6, Allies will undertake to provide, on a voluntary basis and in accordance with national laws, regulations and policies, the space data, products, services or effects that could be required for the Alliance’s operations, missions, and other activities.
NATO is not aiming to become an autonomous space actor. NATO will seek to complement and add value to the work of Allies and to engage with other relevant international organisations, as appropriate, avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort.
OUTLOOK: IS SPACE WAR UNAVOIDABLE?
The rest of the newly released policy document covers a wide range of possible responses to aggressive activities, as well as a number of steps the organization can take before such actions take place. But ultimately, the document sends a signal to would-be space adversaries that NATO is prepared to act on any aggression.
“Considering that Allies have recognised that space is essential to the Alliance’s deterrence and defence, and to a coherent Alliance posture,” the policy reads, “the Alliance will consider a range of potential options, for Council approval, across the conflict spectrum to deter and defend against threats to or attacks on Allies’ space systems, as appropriate and in line with the principles and tenets outlined in this policy.”
In the end, it appears that the increased access to space, the number of countries that have or are developing this access, and the wide range of methods, both lethal and non-lethal that adversaries can employ against NATO assets is driving the world toward an inevitable conflict in space. How such an operation would actually play out is unknown, and the new policy only outlines the organizations stance, not its actual methods for defending these assets, which is likely classified.
However, given the path of human history, war in space may simply be the next, inevitable step in a history filled with conflicts. Fortunately for members of NATO, there is now a formal policy in place to begin preparations, and one that may help deter a war in space much like nuclear weapons have deterred a nuclear war for over seven decades.