NATO Adopts Space As Military “Operational Domain”

NATO Adopts Space As Military “Operational Domain”

Until last week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) operated in four domains: air, land, sea, and cyberspace. Now, NATO decision makers have agreed that space should be adopted as a new operational domain for the alliance. 

Following a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that space can be used for peaceful purposes- but that it can also be used with aggressive intentions. 

“Satellites can be jammed, hacked or weaponized. Anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications and other services our societies rely on, such as air travel, weather forecast or banking,” he said.

Stoltenberg’s comments echo those of the Deputy Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Lieutenant General Scott Kindsvater, who presented a space briefing before the Committee last month. “Space is part of our daily lives,” he warned, “It is therefore important that we are vigilant and resilient – also in space”.

NATO’s decision to adopt space as an operational domain is in line with decisions already made by a number of countries, including those already party to the treaty. In August this year, Washington launched the US Space Command to oversee off-world military operations; the Command’s leader, four-star Gen. John Raymond, describing space as a “warfighting domain.” 

Raymond has since outlined the agency’s “significant” advances to date, including the ongoing development of “space warfighters.” His fervour reflects a growing concern among US officials and government commissions over military threats from China and Russia, countries which are similarly pursuing warfighting objectives in space. Congress will soon vote on the 2020 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), aimed at work on the sixth military branch of the US armed forces, the recently renamed Space Corps. 

According to a US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report released earlier this year, both China and Russia are actively pursuing the development of space-based military capabilities since 2015 at the latest. The military doctrines of these countries, says the agency, “view counterspace capabilities as a means to reduce US and allied military effectiveness.”

Iran and North Korea are also viewed as emerging off-planet threats, with the four countries said to be pursuing any combination of jamming, cyberspace and on-orbit capabilities, as well as directed energy weapons and ground-based anti-satellite missiles. 

According to the DIA, China may already have a “limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors,” and may deploy a terrestrial laser capable of shooting down satellites as early as next year. Chinese weapons could strike targets in geostationary orbit “by the mid-2020s.”

Nonetheless, NATO leaders insist that the designation of space as a military domain is not an offensive move. “Nato has no intention to put weapons in space,” insists Stoltenberg, “We are a defensive alliance.”

Joanna Eva is a London-based analyst and contributor with a range of clients in the risk consulting industry. She specializes in Asian political and economic analysis, having lived and travelled extensively in the region for close to a decade. She holds a Master of Law from the University of New South Wales and received her Bachelor of International Studies from the University of Sydney. She is proficient in English and Mandarin Chinese.

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