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NATO reveals plan to respond to space attacks

Satellites (Thegreenj/WikiCommons)
January 18, 2022

On Monday, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) published a list of policies outlining how the alliance will act in space, including how it would respond to attacks on its members in that domain.

NATO’s overarching space policy outlines how the alliance will increasingly use space and share space-related information among member nations. The policy also states the alliance will extend the principles of its collective defense agreement to the space domain.

“At the 2021 Brussels Summit, Allies agreed that attacks to, from, or within space present a clear challenge to the security of the Alliance, the impact of which could threaten national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security, and stability, and could be as harmful to modern societies as a conventional attack,” the NATO policy states.

“Such attacks could lead to the invocation of Article 5,” NATO said, referring to the NATO article describing collective defense. Article 5 states that an attack on any member of NATO will be considered an attack on all members of NATO and that all members of the alliance will respond. “A decision as to when such attacks would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis.”

NATO’s space policy comes amid concerns about new weapons that can either disrupt or destroy satellites. In November, U.S. Space Force Gen. David Thompson said China and Russia are targeting U.S. satellites with electronic interference attacks “every single day.” Both China and Russia have also demonstrated kinetic weapons, like anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, that can destroy satellites in space.

In 2007, China conducted an ASAT missile test that destroyed one of its own satellites and spread debris throughout Earth’s orbit. Russia similarly launched an ASAT missile in November 2021, destroying one of its own satellites and forcing both U.S. and Russian satellites aboard the International Space Station to shelter from the debris field created by the destroyed satellite.

“A number of nations are developing counter-space and anti-satellite systems,” the NATO policy states. “Potential adversaries in particular are pursuing the development of a wide range of capabilities from non-kinetic (such as dazzling, blinding and jamming of space assets) to kinetic destructive systems(such as direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, on orbit anti-satellite systems, and laser and electro-magnetic capabilities). Such space destruction, disruption, degradation and denial capabilities are further exacerbated by the susceptibility of space to hybrid approaches and the associated difficulty of attributing harmful effects to space systems.”

“Some threats, such as signal jamming and cyber-attacks, can potentially be caused also by non-state actors, including terrorist organizations,” NATO added. “Many threats to Allies’ space systems originate in the cyber domain and are likely to increase.”

The policy further states that NATO sees space as “an integral part of the Alliance’s broad approach to deterrence and defense,” and will increasingly train with space-based systems and advance and share space-based technology and innovations among the alliance. NATO also said it will “consider a range of potential options” to deter and defend against space-based threats and “develop a common understanding of concepts such as the role of space in crisis or conflict.”