With its new “Space Command”, NATO seeks the elevated terrain par excellence

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It’s not the Space Force you may have heard of. Yet NATO’s recently announced “Space Command” boldly takes the seven-decade-old institution where no international military alliance has gone before.Most of its main members and opponents have sought individual advantage in the Last Frontier over the decades. And if the European Space Agency is a collective body, its civil mission and its policy are unquestionably different from those of NATO.

That difference came to the fore this week as NATO defense ministers, meeting online, put in place the final elements of the new command, which has been in the works for several years.

“The space environment has fundamentally changed over the past decade,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“Some countries, including Russia and China, are developing anti-satellite systems that could blind, disable or shoot down satellites and create dangerous debris in orbit. “

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sits next to US President Donald Trump as they attend a working lunch during the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Watford, Britain on December 4 2019. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

NATO “must increase our understanding of the challenges in space,” he said.

Contrary to US President Donald Trump’s much-publicized plan to make the Space Force a separate branch of the US military, the North Atlantic Alliance has been careful to present its space command not as a weapon of “war.” but as something purely defensive.

A 1967 international treaty commits 110 countries, including the United States and Canada, to limit their use of outer space to “peaceful purposes” and prohibits the placing of weapons of mass destruction (eg nuclear bombs) into orbit. ). It further prohibits the militarization of the moon and other celestial bodies.

Stoltenberg insisted that the activities of the alliance will comply with international law.

The Growing Threat of War in Space

This is an important point for Paul Meyer, assistant professor of international studies in international security at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He warned in a recent policy document for the Canadian Institute of World Affairs that “the prospects for armed conflict in space appear more likely than they have been. since the days of the Cold War. ”

Meyer said world leaders should give serious thought to the role – if any – that arms control could play in preventing a war in space.

“Diplomatic solutions are not sought, despite the fact that irresponsible state conduct in space can ruin it for everyone,” he said on Friday.

In this photo posted Wednesday, April 22, 2020 by Sepahnews, an Iranian rocket carrying a satellite is launched from an undisclosed site believed to be in Iran’s Semnan province. Iranian Revolutionary Guards said they had put the Islamic Republic’s first military satellite into orbit. (Sepahnews via AP)

NATO does not have satellites or space infrastructure of its own – but many member nations do and Stoltenberg said the alliance will draw on their expertise to set up the new command.

Almost all modern armies depend on satellites. In any major conflict between NATO and Russia or China, the orbital communication and navigation grid would be the first infrastructure to be affected.

Not only does NATO need satellites for surveillance, reconnaissance and communications, an increasing number of military operations are being targeted from space.

A good example is the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, in which 68% of airstrikes used smart bombs guided by lasers and satellites.

These “eyes in the sky” are also important for ballistic missile defense and (naturally) for weather forecasting.

Diplomacy and deterrence

Dan Coats, the former US director of national intelligence, warned Congress nearly two years ago that China and Russia had trained and equipped their military space forces with new anti-satellite weapons.

These warnings were not limited to the Trump administration. In spring 2019, Norway accused Russia of “harassing” communications systems and jamming the GPS signals of the Norwegian armed forces.

Last spring, US Space Command reported that Moscow had tested a satellite-destroying missile.

Frank Rose, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, said in a recent online policy analysis that outer space will need to be “integrated” within NATO when it comes to planning and operations.

He also argued that the alliance will have to find a way “to incorporate diplomacy into any possible strategy”.

Meyer agreed and noted in his October 2020 policy paper that Canada is largely absent from any meaningful debate on the militarization of space.

The Global Affairs website, he said, has outdated material, is full of mundane and nonspecific references, and is largely devoid of Canadian content.

“Please, the Canadian citizen who wishes to understand where our country stands on this troubling issue of space security,” Meyer wrote.

It is not clear what sort of contribution Canada could make to NATO’s new Space Command.

In a statement, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said it was important for Canada’s allies to develop a strategy that “ensures the peaceful use of space while protecting us.

“Canada has played a leading role in NATO on the importance of space to the Alliance and we remain committed to working with our allies and partners to prevent space from becoming a battle arena. conflict.

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