Launch of OSIRIS-REx, September 2016, Florida. CREDIT: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Launch of OSIRIS-REx, September 2016, Florida. CREDIT: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (CC).

Nov 29, 2023 Article

A Human-Centric Epic for NATO Space Domain Awareness

“And we came forth to contemplate the stars.”―Dante Alighiere

The Allied Command Transformation serves as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Strategic Warfare Development Command. From November 8-10, Allied Command Transformation, in partnership with the Italian think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali and the University of Bologna, convened its annual high-level summit to discuss NATO’s role in space and the proliferation of space threats to allied security and defense.

This event featured senior speakers from NATO, as well as multinational leaders from the private sector, government, and academia. Attendees assembled at the medieval castle Rocca in Bertinoro, Italy to envision a path forward for NATO space operations.

Noting the playful historical humor, as an attendee I appreciated that this castle once lodged the Italian poet Dante, author of the satirical masterpiece The Divine Comedy, an epic about journeying through the afterlife. It was therefore a fitting location to serve as our forum to “intellectually journey” through the spheres of a similar celestial unknown—outer space. But I digress.

Several unifying themes that emerged from the discussions were: (1) exploring NATO’s ability to safely conduct space operations and missions, (2) approaches to deterrence and defense, and (3) the burgeoning need to devise a space doctrine. At the time of this writing, NATO does not have an official space doctrine. In 2019, however, the Allies adopted a Space Policy, declaring space an operational domain, and in 2022, they published a revised Overarching Space Policy. Last year, NATO unveiled its blueprint, the Strategic Concept document, for identifying the Alliance’s deterrence and defense posture in space.

Enhancing Space Domain Awareness

The working sessions grappled with how NATO should prioritize its efforts to transition from space situational awareness to a broader strategic focus on space domain awareness superiority. NATO’s Space Policy defines space domain awareness as an evolving, shared understanding of “the operational space-related environment, threats and vulnerabilities.” This includes support capabilities, like space situational awareness (i.e., information sharing about space activities); intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) operations; satellite communications; meteorological services; and shared early warning systems.

Establishing the Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS) initiative is one example of how NATO is working towards these development goals. This initiative, per NATO’s announcement in February 2023, aims to “enhance space-based surveillance and intelligence for the Alliance, which will improve situational awareness and decision-making.” As the global space economy grows, particularly the satellite industry, improving domain awareness via public-private space partnerships is emerging as a top priority for top spacefaring nations.

Apart from these concerns, and because space is geopolitically contested, resilience is essential to protecting and defending allied, partner, and commercial space assets from hostile uses of space. As the United States Department of Defense’s 2023 Space Policy Review and Strategy on Protection of Satellites makes clear, this dynamic domain “requires a resilient command and control (C2) architecture to synchronize space effects for operations,” and also enable the movement of ground forces.

Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities

Additionally, the orbital space environment is increasingly becoming congested due to orbital debris in low-Earth-orbit (LEO) and challenges stemming from the emergence of large constellations. This has led to heightened risks of collision and interference with space objects. Orbital debris is a chronic and indiscriminate threat to all states with NASA reporting that it’s the top threat to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts. When orbital debris collides into other space objects, it triggers a cascading chain reaction of collisions and debris propagation, known as the Kessler Syndrome. According to the U.S. nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, orbital debris in LEO—orbits with an altitude of 2,000 kilometers or less—can travel “30 times faster than a commercial jet aircraft. At these speeds, pieces of debris larger than 1 cm (half an inch) can severely damage or destroy a satellite, and it is not possible to shield effectively against debris of this size.”

Framed more optimistically, participants noted that the shared challenges of space sustainability from a global commons ethics standpoint could also be leveraged as a diplomacy vehicle. This could bring stakeholders together to help promote the observance of norms on responsible state behavior in space. To that end, the Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability Outer Space Activities, developed by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, emphasizes that international cooperation by states and global organizations is paramount for realizing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring the safety and long-term sustainability of space operations for future generations.

NATO Space Workforce Development Needs

Separate from sustainability concerns, participants also identified a talent shortage and workforce development deficit in space-related careers. While developing the technological means to support space domain awareness is essential, humans will ultimately support the transition from space situational awareness to space domain awareness. But this is not a surprising revelation.

What is surprising to observe, however, is that when this narrative is presented, technological innovation is more often emphasized at the expense of discussing space educational programs and vocational training pipelines to train and retain the next generation of space operators and practitioners. To an extent, even NATO’s Space Policy acknowledges this need, stating “space should continue to feature more consistently and prominently in NATO exercises, to include partial or complete loss of access to space services provided by Allies’ capabilities.”

Multinational educational and training opportunities are essential for achieving NATO’s vision for augmenting space domain awareness and promoting security and stability. As Dante writes, “If you give people light, they will find their own way.” Here, space educational and training opportunities are a symbolic light for space personnel to gain the requisite skills to find ways to bridge this training gap and support NATO’s long-term needs in the final frontier.

Carnegie Council Visiting Fellow Zhanna L. Malekos Smith served as an expert speaker at the Allied Command Transformation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) space summit on November 10, 2023.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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