While the role of space in NATO’s operations has traditionally received much less attention than the alliance’s other domain responsibilities, NATO’s recent attention to space issues is a welcome change. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly stresses that ‘NATO’s collective defence and economic prosperity rely on space-based infrastructure, and an attack on the space assets of one Ally would impact the security of all. As such, NATO needs a whole-of-alliance approach to protect its interests in space to enhance resilience and deter any threat to its space-based capabilities.’1 This sentiment was followed by NATO’s first space policy, announced June 2019, which emphasized vigilance and resiliency in space in the face of increasing threats targeting the NATO’s access to space.2 Perhaps most significant is NATO’s acknowledgement of space as an operational domain, alongside the air, land, sea, and cyberspace domains.3 Following these developments, NATO serves as the preeminent forum to develop a multi-lateral space deterrence strategy. A strengthened NATO space deterrence strategy will help convey the futility of aggressive actions in space, thereby promoting assured access to space for the betterment of the international community.
Deterrence Theory for the Space Domain
Because NATO member states derive strategic advantages from satellites and potential rivals may seek to deny this advantage, the concept of space deterrence is relevant. Space deterrence refers to persuading a potential enemy that it is in its own interests to avoid certain courses of activity in, through, or from space.
One of the most essential distinctions in deterrence theory is between deterrence by punishment and by denial.4 Deterrence by punishment concerns the threat of credible and potentially overwhelming force or other retaliatory action against any would-be adversary to discourage potential aggressors from conducting hostile actions. Deterrence by denial refers to deterring an adversary by presenting a credible capability to prevent it from achieving the potential gains adequate to motivate the action.5 Deterrence by punishment and denial each have relevance for the space domain.
Deterrence by punishment is one part of the broader US space strategy. The 2017 US National Security Strategy conveys that harmful interference or attacks targeting US satellites will be met with a deliberate response in the time, place, manner, and domain of its choosing.6 Given the strategic importance of space capabilities in NATO’s ability to defend itself, the alliance has the opportunity to institute similar declarations. This may include NATO clearly conveying the capability and credibility to respond to an attack against a member state’s space systems and communicating the specific behaviour to be discouraged.7 The alliance may also decide under what conditions an attack in space would trigger the organization’s Article 5 provisions on collective defence.
A key challenge for NATO instituting a space deterrence by punishment strategy is the concern that aggression in space would not rise to levels that warrant a terrestrial military response. The non-casualty generating effects of space actions does not preclude a deterrent effect. Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter describes the need to refrain from the threat or use of force against a state’s territorial integrity, which may be interpreted as a state’s physical property. For this reason, self-defence and retaliatory threats to deter a potential armed attack against a NATO member’s satellites are appropriate and justified.
A deterrence by denial strategy for space seeks to frustrate or complicate the adversary’s plans by introducing greater costs and reducing associated benefit. Over the past several years, there has been greater emphasis on the role of deterrence by denial in US space strategy. The same could hold for NATO space strategy. Rather than threatening retaliation against the aggressor’s satellites or terrestrial assets, a deterrence by denial space strategy conveys the futility of attacking NATO members’ satellites.8
Much of a deterrence by denial approach necessitates preparing for potential conflict during peacetime. This presents an opportunity for NATO to expand its deterrent effect through peacetime military space preparedness.9 Military space preparations preceding a conflict may include hardening against cyber threats and signal jamming, protecting remote sensing satellites from dazzling lasers, increasing the mobility of satellites, and distributing capability across a number of satellites.10 One method of frustrating an adversary’s plans may include training military forces to fight under degraded conditions in space, thereby depriving potential aggressors the appeal of attacking satellites.11 These preparations can have significant deterrent effect and may convince a potential aggressor that the prospects for success are too costly and result in little benefit.
Strengthening NATO’s Space Deterrence Strategy
In many areas, NATO is ideally positioned to bolster deterrence in space through its cooperative alliance. Strengthened alliance activities and coordinated military space preparedness can persuade a potential adversary to avoid aggressive behaviour in space.
A NATO space strategy should create a strategic performance and deterrent effect that is stronger than the sum of the individual parts. Despite the preference for national space assets, expanded multilateral space deterrence discussions within NATO can emphasize the cooperative impact of these assets on the alliance.12 The alliance’s space deterrent would be enhanced if member states can complement and supplement each other’s own capabilities, through data-sharing agreements, interoperability, or even by assisting in the reconstitution of lost space capabilities. Increasing military preparedness of space assets as a part of a deterrence by denial strategy can become a financial burden to a state attempting to make preparations unilaterally.13 By providing an organizational structure where members can leverage assets across the alliance, NATO can provide a significant deterrent effect at a lower cost than the sum of member states acting individually.
While collective security has its dilemmas terrestrially at times, space may be the ideal domain for such an agreement. Because of the character of space warfare and its unique geographic attributes, states and stakeholders outside of the immediate conflict may have their satellites affected negatively should deterrence fail and conflict ensue. NATO members that may not normally feel threatened by an aggressor’s actions may have their space security worsened by orbital debris from kinetic attacks or by indiscriminate radio frequency jamming. Moreover, the state subject to an attack may provide a global or multinational space-derived service, such as from the US Global Position System or European Galileo satellites, which if attacked could potentially draw other members reliant on this service into the conflict against the aggressor.14 Should NATO strengthen its focus on space deterrence, an aggressor may be hesitant to attack space systems because it may have to contend with a unified and coordinated NATO response.15
Recommended Near-Term Actions
Given the significant benefits of a strengthened NATO space deterrence strategy, recommendations include:
1. Elevate the role of space in traditional military exercises and wargames, collaborate with member states on indigenous space wargame efforts, and establish space-centric wargames and military exercises within NATO. As part of this recommended action, NATO member states should leverage lessons on space integration from previous Trident Juncture and Defender military exercises and expand these exercises to reflect space’s status as an operational domain. NATO and its member states should also continue to participate in the US Space Flag exercise and Schriever Wargame. Through the expertise of its Joint Warfare Centre, NATO should develop its own space wargames to educate and train member states’ space professionals and use these events as an opportunity to communicate the effects of space warfare to the NATO command staff.
2. Incorporate the capabilities and services of the commercial sector into space deterrence strategies, planning, and military exercises whenever possible, recognizing the crucial role of commercial space sector in conveying the futility of aggressive action against a member state’s satellites. The commercial sector (satellite operators, launch service providers, and manufacturing supply base) should play a significant role in NATO’s space deterrence strategy. Having a broad framework that extensively uses the commercial sector will help promote a deterrence by denial of benefit strategy, thereby assuring access to space during times of hostilities.
3. Create a publicly available NATO space strategy that explicitly covers NATO’s space deterrence strategy and describes how the alliance will work together to assure access to space. Recently, several NATO members have produced new space strategies and are in the process of reorganizing their space forces to meet the changing threat environment. Because of the shared space security interests, NATO should host discussions between member states to align national strategies with NATO’s multilateral space strategy and objectives to avoid duplication and realize efficiencies.
4. Include space as a topic in future discussions on countering, responding to, and deterring hybrid threats and military activities that fall short of war. Just as potential adversaries seek ways to achieve relative gains without triggering escalation within terrestrial domain, this condition is replicated in space as well. This includes Russia’s proximity and inspection activities on French and US national security satellites.16 Including space strategies on how to counter and deter this behaviour, along with its terrestrial analogues, will help ensure NATO has a relevant strategy to defend its member states’ space interests.
Space imparts many strategic benefits that enable NATO’s military and non-military activities. While NATO has indeed taken meaningful steps toward a more robust space deterrence strategy by acknowledging space as an operational domain, much more needs to be done. The alliance is well-positioned to promote assured access to space among its members, take a leadership role in developing a multi-lateral space deterrence strategy, and carry out a strategy for the betterment of all NATO member states. Space has a critical role in international security because all the world’s major powers are also great space powers that seek to broaden their use of space. Given the lessons of history, the strategic effect derived from space-based capabilities will not remain unchallenged. A strengthened NATO space deterrence strategy can play an important role in ensuring peace and stability within the space domain.