Space as new operational domain: What is NATO preparing for
NATO has identified space as a fifth operational domain, with four others being air, sea, land, and cyber. With a relevant statement, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg assured that the Alliance will not be deploying weapons there.
First of all, it should be noted that space has long been used for military purposes. Since the Cold War, space has been constantly been part of confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were even projects alike Star Wars, but they were all related to the use of nuclear weapons and the struggle for influence between the two powers – the U.S. and the USSR.
Now, the global security system, set up after World War 2 and the Cold War is dismantling as today it lacks the required balance
Now, the global security system, set up after World War 2 and the Cold War is dismantling as today it lacks the required balance. Therefore, the use of space for military purposes is no longer an option for just two world powers – now space is being used (or can potentially be used) by many states.
Speaking of countries ready to use space as an operational domain, in fact, there are many of them today. First of all, today's Russia is capable of doing it. They have delivered various presentations of hypersonic and nuclear-powered missiles that can be used in space. One of such presentation was personally led by Vladimir Putin.
Also, it's China, Iran, and North Korea. That is, there are enough threats looming...
That is why NATO, as an organization that is supposed to provide security and defense for its member states, is now addressing the issue of space, or the possibility of such weapons being used against the Allies. In this regard, NATO has also declared that space is now an operational domain.
It's primarily about defenses because NATO is a unique defense bloc that under Art. 5 of the Washington Treaty is bound to protect each Ally that is being threatened.
Essentially, missile defense forces have long been using space as an operational domain
Stoltenberg separately noted that deploying weapons in space is off the table. Instead, it is about creating a defense system that controls the possibility of weapons' use, say, by Russia or China against NATO Allies.
For example, NATO's missile defense system, deployed in Poland and Romania, is able to destroy in space potential nuclear missiles that would be targeting NATO member states. So, in principle, space is already being used in missile defense, as it is better to destroy a nuclear missile before it starts to descend onto the target – that is, in space. So, essentially, missile defense forces have long been using space as an operational domain.
However, this also applies to any other means of destruction. NATO must be prepared to ensure that these means of destruction don't hurt the Allies. So, this is not really about the deployment of NATO weapons in space, but rather setting up a system that would not allow strikes from space or the emergence of threats or challenges through the military use of space by other powers.
Besides, it should be noted that when it comes to space, it is also about the deployment of certain elements of satellite infrastructure aimed for carrying out cyber attacks, as well as attacks not only with the use of rigid elements of destruction (nuclear weapons and other types of arms), but also cyber or information weapons. In other words, space is seen as an area where any means of damage or harm to NATO Allies can be applied. And NATO plans to defend itself against all of them.
Mykhailo Samus is Deputy Director for International Affairs at the Center for Army Studies, Conversion and Disarmament