Collective Defense in Space

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This series—featuring scholars from the Futures Lab, the International Security Program, and across CSIS—explores emerging challenges and opportunities that NATO is likely to confront after its 75th anniversary.

In the future, NATO member states will increase their interoperability to confront space-based threats. New technical standards and exercises will extend the alliance’s collective security framework into new domains.

Based on NATO’s Space Policy and the 2021 Brussels summit, attacks in space can trigger the invocation of Article 5 by the North Atlantic Council. As a result, collective security extends to the space domain. Protecting NATO’s interests in space requires that the alliance expand interoperability standards to consider unique space concerns and public-private partnerships and develop new contingency plans for protecting its space architecture in the land domain.

NATO defines interoperability along technical, procedural, human, and informational lines. Technical interoperability governs connecting hardware and armaments through the use of standards. Procedural and human interoperability deals with doctrine, tactics, and establishing a common terminology and training to ensure allies have a shared understanding. Information interoperability includes efforts to build a connected battle network, such as effects to bridge NATO’s federated mission networking environment with the mission partner environment for U.S. allies connected to Combined Joint All Domain Command & Control (CJADC2) infrastructure.

NATO uses Standardization Agreements (STANAG) and a system of review bodies to ensure inoperability across the alliance. With the update of the formal Space Policy in 2019 alongside the 2022 Strategic Concept and 2023 Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS) Initiative, STANAG increasingly extends into the space domain.

For example, NATO STANAG 4067, which dates back to 1999, outlines common formats for ground moving target indicators (GMTIs). GMTIs are critical for intelligence and targeting in modern warfare and increasingly depend on space-based capabilities. Imagine a scenario in which Russian ground formations attempt a fait accompli to attack the Baltics. Tracking Russian ground formations attacking NATO’s eastern flank would rely on networks of satellites from different member states sharing data and updating command centers in near-real time. The resulting situational awareness would help commanders decide when and where to deploy NATO’s Response Force to reinforce the engaged northeastern battle groups, including how to allocate artillery and air assets to counterattack advancing Russian units.

In modern great power competition, standards to enhance interoperability will have to extend beyond nation-states to the private sector. NATO is increasingly advocating integrating private sector partners to support space domain awareness and tracking orbital objects. Back to GMTIs, satellites need to pass information in orbit and with ground-based terminals to provide an up-to-date picture of the battlefield. SpaceX’s ability to pass data between satellites in space using lasers makes intelligence networks more resilient and responsive by reducing the latency and making them more resistant to electronic warfare. This capability makes it possible to support longer kill chains

For example, under the APSS initiative, a satellite constellation called “Aquila” will connect both national and commercial satellites to streamline data collection and support early warning and analysis. With regard to the future Russian scenario, even if Moscow finds a way to disrupt NATO member state satellites tracking its advance as it attacks, it will struggle to achieve effects against the myriad of commercial satellites in multiple orbits. In other words, the future of collective defense in space rests on developing standards for integrating the private sector and sharing data.

Second, NATO will need to develop new contingency plans for protecting key nodes in its space architecture. NATO member states will have to rethink technical agreements and procedures around spaceports required to launch new payloads into orbit as well as major downlink terminals. Across the alliance there are 15 spaceports either built or in development. In addition, the European Space Agency maintains a separate facility in French Guiana. Each of these sites will be at risk in a crisis and a likely high-value target for enemy forces. Therefore, ensuring interoperable launch procedures and building exercise frameworks to practice protecting these sites is critical to collective security.

For example, in a future crisis, Russian space forces could use a mix of anti-satellite weapons, non-kinetic attacks, and even nuclear weapons to open hostilities by degrading NATO satellite constellations. These attacks would likely be followed by what Russian military theory refers to as SODCIT and sixth-generation warfare—long-range precision strikes and unconventional attacks—to destroy spaceports and associated critical infrastructure. Moscow would gamble that low-casualty attacks against these terrestrial sites combined with degraded intelligence networks in space would give it a bargaining advantage to pressure member states to back down while reducing the effectiveness of any NATO counterattack. As a result, NATO will need to start building procedural and human interoperability for rehearsing multi-domain defense plans that ensure a resilient space architecture. This will require new contingency plans, ongoing campaign analysis, and exercises that test and rehearse responding to space threats.

In addition, interoperability is constantly in the making. It requires time and resources at both the state and alliance level, ranging from exchanges to war games and exercise programs to creative hackathons that scout for new technologies that improve collective security. Building an agile process into exercises that identify capability gaps and using them to design hackathons will ensure that NATO stays ahead of emerging threats in space and threats to its terrestrial space architecture.

Russian threats to NATO member states extend into space. As a result, the future of the alliance depends on securing the heavens through a mix of interoperability standards and new contingency plans.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for Futures Lab in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Petersen Chair of Emerging Technology and professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfighting. Erica Lonergan (née Borghard) is an assistant professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program

Erica Lonergan

Assistant Professor, Columbia University