Saturday, 27 February 2021

NATO at 70: Moving beyond Earth?

On 4th December 2019, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) will host a ‘Leader’s Meeting’ in London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance. This essay – which looks at NATO’s growing role in Space – is the second of a three-part series by Dr Andrew Foxall, Matthew Henderson and James Rogers, with a focus on NATO at 70.

When NATO’s leaders convene in London on 4th December 2019, they will have more to discuss than in previous get-togethers – last week, the alliance recognised space as an ‘operational domain’. This gives space the same status as the air, land, sea, and cyber domains, where an attack on one country would trigger a collective response – the Article Five guarantee. According to Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, ‘Making space an operational domain will help us ensure all aspects are taken into account to ensure the success of our missions.’

The alliance has been moving to officially recognise the importance of space for some time. Its current Strategic Concept – adopted in 2010, woefully out-of-date and in dire need of updating – warns about the deployment of technologies that threaten allied capabilities in space. The Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations, published in 2016, drew attention to adversaries seeking to access space for military purposes detrimental to the Alliance. And in June of this year, NATO adopted its inaugural Space Policy.

Space has, of course, been a forum for geopolitical competition since the 1950s. In the last decade or so, however, it has become central to the efforts of newly assertive countries, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia, to challenge the international order. Technological advances, not least those that enable cheap launching and ultra-capable satellites, have unlocked space for a wide array of state (and commercial) actors. In September, India launched a rocket to the moon which cost just US$141 million, or about two-thirds of the budget of the recent Hollywood blockbuster ‘Toy Story 4’.

For the moment, the West retains its military dominance on Earth and NATO is in the ascendancy in space. 65% of all satellites in space today are owned by members of the alliance. But the alliance’s unparalleled ability to project its force on Earth, which depends on an extensive array of satellites, is increasing seen as being under threat.

In January 2019, the PRC shocked the world when it landed a robotic probe, Chang’e 4, on the far side of the moon. This was the latest development in an ambitious space programme which first came to international attention in 2007, when Beijing successfully tested an anti-satellite missile. But Beijing’s future plans are even more ambitious. It aims to assemble a robotic research station on the Moon by 2025, and intends to put astronauts on the Moon by 2035. All of this is underpinned by a reported US$11 billion annual space budget, according to open-source data compiled by RFE/RL.

At the same time, Russia, in spite of some high-profile launch failures over recent years, remains a force in space. Its annual budget stands at US$3.3 billion, and has remained comparatively stable despite economic stagnation over the last decade. Speaking in May, President Vladimir Putin said the ‘preservation of strategic stability and military parity’ depended on his country’s ‘ability to effectively resolve security tasks in outer space’. The fact that the International Space Station is reliant on Russian launch vehicles reinforces the Kremlin’s perspective that it remains a global power.

According to a report published by the United States (US) Defence Intelligence Agency in February, something akin to an arms race in space has begun to take shape involving electronic warfare, directed energy weapons, and cyber assaults. The use of such weapons, including lasers, may sound like science fiction, but early developments in this direction are already having implications. Militaries are dependent on satellites for on-Earth communication, detection, and monitoring, and advances in technology mean these satellites are increasingly vulnerable to attack or disruption.

For its part, NATO does not own, or directly operate, on-orbit assets. Instead, it relies on national and commercial capabilities. These capabilities recently received a boost, when the US announced its own campaign to maintain its post-Cold War supremacy. In August, President Donald Trump launched US Space Command, the first new branch of the armed forces since the air force was created in 1947. President Donald Trump was mocked when he initially announced his plan last year, but it has since been copied by France.

The United Kingdom (UK) has long been a key actor in space. Last year, the space sector accounted for £14.8 billion of the national economy and represented 5.1% of the global market, according to government figures. Yet, public spending – around £400 million – compares unfavourably to other major economies – the annual budget of the Italian Space Agency, for example, is more than double. There also exists a significant disconnect between the UK’s role as a leading military power and its relatively weak position in the military space domain.

Half a century after the first moon landing, a new space age is dawning. Speaking in April 2019, Patrick Shanahan, US Acting Defence Secretary, warned that ‘The next major conflict may be won or lost in space.’ Because of this, it is crucial that the UK’s commitment to space – both as a critical component of its own grand strategy and as part of its contribution to NATO – increases.

This is the second part of a three-part series focusing on NATO at 70. The first essay, by James Rogers, assesses defence spending and burden sharing in the alliance, while the final essay, by Matthew Henderson, explains why NATO would do well to respond to the rise of the PRC.

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