1. NATO's space awakening
  2. Space base – Ramstein
  3. Fundamentals of NATO's space policy
  4. What can Ukraine get after joining the Alliance
  5. Bottom line. There will be no space forces

Today, NATO is the most powerful military and political bloc in the world. The combined power of its armies is several times greater than that of any potential adversary on land, sea and air.

But what about outer space? The Alliance has recognized outer space as a strategically important theater of modern warfare, along with the traditional ones – land, water and air. And its importance will only grow in the future. Nataliia Borotkanych, PhD in History and Space Project Coordinator at Noosphere, told Liga.Tech whether NATO has a space strategy and whether the bloc is going to acquire its own orbital forces.

NATO's space awakening

Not long ago, a major war in Europe seemed improbable, and expenditures on a military alliance designed to deter unlikely threats were difficult to justify. In this context, officials sought to expand NATO's role to include combating global warming and ensuring cybersecurity. Outer space at the time was not identified as a distinct domain by the organization and was considered the remit of the air force.

However, the occupation of Crimea and other alarming signals, such as China's rapid militarization, kick-started the process of NATO's awakening and return to the big game. This time, space has been added to the bloc's traditional areas of responsibility. During a meeting in Brussels in 2018, NATO leaders recognized for the first time the importance of controlling outer space.

Several factors drove this shift. First, a real space revolution occurred in the 2010s. Thanks to the rise of private companies, the number of space actors multiplied, access to space launch capabilities expanded greatly, and costs declined significantly.

Second, the alliance itself began to rely on data collected by spacecraft. On one hand, this information provided the organization with a significant technological advantage. On the other hand, NATO later realized that dependence on satellites represented a potential Achilles heel. The decision by the then U.S. administration to create a separate U.S. Space Force likely also influenced NATO officials' thinking.

Space base – Ramstein

In 2019, the Alliance officially recognized outer space as its fifth domain of operations (the other four are land, air, water, and cyberspace). In October 2020, a decision was made to establish NATO's first space center. It is located at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The main tasks of the center are to coordinate the activities of NATO member states in space, support the Alliance's ground missions and operations, and protect NATO space systems.

The next important milestone was passed at the Brussels Summit in 2021. The participants made the following key statement: "attacks to, from or within space present a clear challenge to the security of the Alliance and could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty."

And finally, shortly before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NATO published a policy document entitled "NATO’s overarching Space Policy". It outlined the main priorities and principles that the alliance intends to follow in the space domain.

Fundamentals of NATO's space policy

The text of the policy document states that NATO recognizes the importance of space for security and maintaining its defense capabilities. And since space is a global environment, any military conflict can affect all countries – even if NATO is not involved in any way.

Another important point of the document states that the members of the alliance retain jurisdiction and control over their objects in space, as well as full authority and sovereignty over their space capabilities and resources. Thus, NATO has reiterated its position that any attacks on satellites may be considered by the Alliance as a reason to invoke Article 5.

As for the main threats to NATO, the development of anti-satellite systems, primarily by Russia and China, was mentioned. There is no doubt that Russia's irresponsible test of anti-satellite weapons in the fall of 2021 was one of the decisive factors that influenced the formation of NATO's space policy principles. States such as Iran and North Korea, which already have the means to put cargo into orbit, also pose a significant threat to the alliance.

What can Ukraine get after joining the Alliance

Currently, the Alliance has no plans to create its own space systems or deploy weapons in space. The organization positions itself primarily as a platform for information exchange and coordination of member states. This should increase the effectiveness of support for operations under the auspices of the Alliance. The most important tasks for it now are the following:

  • global positioning, navigation, and synchronization, which allow for precision strikes, tracking enemy forces, or search and rescue operations;
  • early warning systems that provide information about missile launches;
  • environmental monitoring for mission planning purposes;
  • secure satellite communications;
  • intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which are critical for situational awareness, planning and decision-making.

To achieve these objectives, NATO has already taken a number of important steps. One of them was the decision to create a strategic space situational awareness system (3SAS). The 3SAS system will allow NATO to better understand the space environment and events that could affect the situation in Earth orbit. Luxembourg became the first country to contribute to the development of the initiative, allocating funding in the amount of 6.7 million euros.

At a meeting of defense ministers in February 2023, a group of 18 NATO countries, including Sweden, decided to develop an initiative called Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS). As part of this initiative, NATO plans to create a large-scale virtual satellite constellation called Aquila. It will consist of both national and commercial spacecraft designed to monitor the Earth's surface. Aquila will provide the alliance with real-time information on the movement of enemy forces, weather conditions and terrain.

NATO is also actively investing in the acquisition of various space services. The alliance plans to spend a billion euros on satellite communications for the period up to 2034. As part of a similar initiative, NATO has also recently begun procuring Earth observation imagery from various commercial companies.

Bottom line. There will be no space forces

On the one hand, NATO does not currently have any space forces of its own, and has no plans to create them in the near future. On the other hand, NATO has finally realized the importance of controlling space. In the last few years, the alliance has made more efforts in this area than in the previous 70 years of its existence. It is hoped that the implementation of the alliance's space projects will not get bogged down in a bureaucratic quagmire.

In any case, the fact that NATO has decided to make its presence felt in the space arena is good news. Of course, the member states of the alliance have powerful satellite capabilities – but in the case of joint operations, the coordination factor becomes crucial. And NATO is ready to take on this function.

What does this mean for Ukraine? The country already receives regular space support from its allies in the form of intelligence and communications services. But it is being implemented within the framework of various initiatives of individual countries. Within NATO, this activity will be carried out on a systematic, coordinated basis. This is another reason why joining the North Atlantic Alliance is a strategic goal for Ukraine that must be achieved at all costs.