The 29 NATO heads of state on Wednesday jointly declared space a “domain of operations” during a summit in London that marked the security alliance’s 70th anniversary.
“Today, we took a wide range of important decisions,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg immediately following the summit’s conclusion.”We have declared space as the fifth operational domain for NATO, alongside land, air, sea, and cyber.”
The declaration expands the scope of collective-defence commitment for NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That commitment is enshrined in Article 5 of the alliance’s founding document, known as the Washington Treaty.
Analysts say Wednesday’s announcement was overdue and serves two purposes: to meet the challenges posed by Russia and China’s military space activities and to assuage United States President Donald Trump’s view that the alliance is both a military and economic burden without qualifying benefits.
“President Trump’s repeated NATO bashings have definitely left the allies worried,” Michael John Williams, director of the International Relations Program at New York University, told Al Jazeera. “His declaration of a US Space Force was taken as a sign of interest and thus advancing space as a fifth military domain is a way of adding to NATO’s value.”
NATO’s “collective defence” principle obligates all member nations to consider an attack against one ally as an attack against all allies. If such an attack were to occur, all NATO members are bound to take the necessary measures, including the use of force, to secure the member under attack and the alliance.
The only time NATO has activated Article 5 was on September 12, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks against the US on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In the wake of the declaration, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that while his government categorically opposes the militarisation of space, the recent establishment of the US Space Command is forcing his country to develop its own space systems.
Satellites as tools for waging war
The rise of satellites as tools for waging war and keeping the peace has made space crucial to many national and defence plans – now including the plan of the NATO alliance.
Security experts have pointed to the threat posed by some nations that are reportedly developing anti-satellite systems, including signal jammers to disrupt communications, lasers, and kinetic kill systems that issue missile-like projectiles.
Militaries use satellites to command and control their personnel and weaponry, and to gather intelligence on their adversaries’ activities. If one nation’s satellites were to be paralysed or destroyed, that country’s ability to defend itself against an attack could be fatally crippled.
Commercially-operated satellites also facilitate business transactions, help people navigate unfamiliar destinations, and control critical infrastructure, such as power stations and air traffic control systems.
“Declaring space a fifth military domain opens it up to NATO Article 5 protection, and given the number of assets controlled by the US and the danger that those satellites might face from Russia and China, this move is a way to show more European support for the US and to internationalise,” said Williams.
James Townsend, former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and NATO policy, further notes that NATO uses both commercial and military satellites.
“They have to be worried like the rest of us about their satellite access being compromised or destroyed,” he told Al Jazeera. “This helps them focus on defending and protecting their satellite access and developing a ‘plan B’ if the satellites go down.”