Will NATO find its place in the space race when the 2030 Agenda is introduced?


STUTTGART, Germany – Global military leaders have increased investments in the space sector in recent years, warning of a growing reliance on vulnerable assets in orbit. While the NATO alliance is pushing a forward-looking agenda ahead of the Brussels summit, it remains to be seen to what extent the NATO alliance is committed to this new area.

The marquee element of this year’s summit, which will take place on June 14, is NATO’s 2030 Agenda, which includes recommendations on strengthening the Alliance’s role and ability to address current and future threats. One such proposal is to invest more holistically and strategically in new and breakthrough technologies, and seven in particular have been identified as NATO priority areas Science and Technology Trends 2020-2040 Report.

Space is one of those technologies, but in the run-up to the Brussels Summit, it barely deserved a mention from the leaders of the Alliance, that prioritize new strategies related to artificial intelligence and data processing.

In a virtual appearance prior to the June 5 summit at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s only nod was a simple statement: “Since 2014, we’ve implemented the greatest reinforcement of our collective defense in a generation and our capabilities improved. “To defend all allies, on land, at sea, in the air, in cyberspace and in space.”

Stoltenberg tends to be cautious in realizing that NATO’s approach to space will remain defensive, focusing on early warning, communication and navigation capabilities. “NATO has no intention of sending weapons into space, but we must ensure that our missions and operations have the right support.” he said in 2019.

This tone differs from the rhetoric used by US military and government leaders who have called space the “domain of warfare.” This comparison makes observers wonder what role NATO will play in the space sector in the future.

Sovereign activity

There are opportunities for NATO Headquarters to act as a “one stop shop” and coordinate its members’ space efforts, said Nicholas Nelson, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. This is because several members individually invest more money than ever in space.

The US Department of Defense established the Space Force as the newest American military branch in December 2019, along with several new agencies to give more priority to the space sector. The department’s 2022 budget request, released in May, included more than $ 17 billion for the Space Force. about $ 2.2 billion more than Congress approved for this service last fiscal year.

If approved, the Space Force funding would represent approximately 2.5 percent of the total Pentagon budget in FY22. Funding for both space-related procurement and research and development would increase in 2022: procurement dollars would increase from $ 2.3 billion in 2021 to $ 2.8 billion in 2022; and R&D funding would grow from $ 10.5 billion in 2021 to $ 11.3 billion in 2022 per budget document.

Across the pond, the UK is projected to spend around £ 7 billion ($ 10 billion) on its space portfolio over the next 10 years. In April, it set up the new British Space Command as a joint command staffed by Navy, Army and Air Force personnel, as well as members of the country’s civil service. The budget for Space Command is expected to be around £ 51.8 million in 2021, according to a Defense Department spokesman.

In 2019 the French Army Ministry created its own separate Space Force Command – known in French as “la Commandement de L’espace”. The ministry announced that it would raise € 700 million by 2025.

Observers are also watching how other NATO allies might advance in space. Germany, for example, is a country where “despite the right noises, there is still a reluctance to actually call space the domain of warfare,” said Nelson.

What role does NATO play under the stars?

But not all nations need to set up their own satellite programs or develop launch capacities, nor are all able to do so. NATO could help identify areas in the value chain that different nations can participate in, Nelson noted.

NATO headquarters could also help set the tone for space-based nomenclature and definitions across the alliance, he added, which would ensure that all members would “read from the same sheet of music” and streamline programs and processes.

“Different countries define different parts of the space value chain and use similar but different language that has different meanings. When no one speaks the same language, so to speak, it’s really difficult to get a baseline of understanding, ”Nelson said.

The space debate has changed dramatically in the past two to three decades, according to Xavier Pasco, director of the French think-tank Foundation for Strategic Research, who recently spoke at a hearing before the Senate’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He noted that nations – particularly, but not exclusively, the United States – have begun to speak of space as an “infrastructure” or “commodity” that will serve the wider world economy. That change in rhetoric will inevitably lead to a change in government approaches and decision-making, he added.

NATO has made progress in focusing on space. In 2019, the Alliance agreed to establish the NATO Space Center, based at the Alliance’s Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, with the aim of promoting space awareness activities by coordinating data, products and services between members support.

But more can and must be done at the coalition level to ensure that the allies keep up with massive investment from peer opponents like Russia and China, even though the alliance is not yet fully aligned with its policies towards the latter, Nelson said.

“You cannot afford to have … a mass duplication” of skills or assets in this era of great power competition, he said.

Interoperability, a key NATO goal in every operational area, will suffer in space if the alliance does not develop common priorities and efforts, Nelson predicted, noting that several space-based capabilities are going online within the alliance’s community, such as: such as the US-based next-generation GPS III satellite system and the European Space Agency’s Galileo platforms.

“If you don’t build interoperability from both a strategic, political and, of course, technological perspective, we won’t be able to fight together as an alliance in a meaningful way,” said Nelson. “It will leave massive gaps in our ability to achieve one of NATO’s core objectives, namely collective defense.”

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany contributing to Defense News’ European coverage. She previously reported for the National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy, and the Dayton Daily News. She was named Best Young Defense Journalist by the Defense Media Awards in 2020.

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