Reach for the stars

10 July 2020

Following the US’s lead, nations around the world are making substantial investments in the expansion of their military space assets. Greg Noone talks to Matt Roper, chief of joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at Nato’s Communications and Information Agency, about how this skyward focus among defence planners is affecting planning at the world’s most powerful military alliance.

Reconnaissance is the art of observing the enemy in great detail and in even greater secrecy. For centuries, commanders used to accomplish this feat using scouts, sending them out on foot or on horseback to gain the full measure of their adversaries. The work was inherently risky. If the scout did his job successfully, he could supply vital intelligence on the enemy’s strength and location. Capture, meanwhile, could not only lead to the individual’s death, but the betrayal of his own army’s secrets under interrogation.

As time wore on, new inventions gradually mitigated this risk. Telescopes, for example, helped the scout to observe the enemy from a safer distance. Then came flight. Beginning with balloons in the 18th century and culminating in high-altitude U2 spy planes, airborne reconnaissance allowed armies to observe one another in more or less real time – vital when the mobility of ground forces began to be enhanced by the militarisation of the motor vehicle.

There was still an element of danger: even the fastest aircraft could still be intercepted, after all. That risk would diminish, however, with the invention of the spy satellite. A product of the Cold War tensions between the US and Soviet Union, both superpowers realised after the launch of Sputnik in 1957 that placing a camera in orbit created an observation post of unlimited surveillance potential that, by virtue of its height and speed, was almost completely invulnerable to attack.

This advantage would eventually disappear with the invention of anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles. The secret nature of these weapons, however, meant that until after the end of the Cold War, the broader public understanding of spy satellites was that they were the apotheosis of visual reconnaissance, heavenly bodies invulnerable to the kinds of dangers visited upon more conventional surveillance assets. This pretence was shattered when the Chinese military conducted its own successful – and very public – test of an ASAT missile in 2007, the first in over two decades.

The possibility that actions of this kind would become a familiar part of modern warfare would only grow in subsequent years, as global reliance on satellite-based telecommunications deepened. Slowly but surely, military planners began to realise that one could not only blind the enemy by knocking out their surveillance satellites, but also deafen and disorient them by destroying the infrastructure underpinning their navigation and phone networks.

As such, interest in augmenting defensive capabilities as they relate to space has substantially increased in recent years. The US leads in this regard, announcing the world’s first dedicated space command in 2019. Several other allied nations, including the UK, France and Japan, have followed suit with similar initiatives.

Most of these schemes have been unilateral in nature, in defiance of the truism that most modern conflicts are fought and won with coalitions. In such a situation, one nation’s space doctrine needs to be broadly compatible with that of its allies. This is especially true if your nation belongs to the world’s most powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the members of which own over 60% of global space assets. In recognition of the strategic vulnerability of this assortment of satellites and other orbital infrastructure, the alliance declared space to be its newest operational domain in December 2019.

For Matt Roper, it was about time. As chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) at Nato’s Communications and Information Agency (NCI), Roper helps to oversee the alliance’s satellite communications network as well as provide subject matter expertise on areas such as geospatial services and navigation in warfare. For Nato, therefore, space has always been important. Nevertheless, the new emphasis on space as a new operational domain is a step change for his agency and the alliance at large. “We are recognising that it has a critical role as a component in any ISR strategy,” says Roper.

Innate vulnerability

Nato’s declaration of space as its newest operational domain was not just a statement of intent – it was a practical necessity. According to the alliance’s principle of collective defence articulated in its founding charter, the organisation’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe is authorised to call upon any and all military and civilian assets at the disposal of the alliance’s members to initiate a retaliatory strike. For that to work, Nato’s central command structure needs to understand not only what weapons and equipment is has at its disposal, but also have in place a set of harmonised operational standards that ensure each nation coordinates their attacks effectively.

“We know that Nato as an alliance is only as good, in some ways, as its weakest link,” explains Roper. “The key challenge for us is how we ensure that nations X, Y and Z, when investing in space ISR-type activities, do that in a smart way so that we can continue to facilitate the shared experience that those capabilities give us.”

This process can only begin with an acknowledgement of just how reliant Nato currently is on space-based telecommunications, in both the civilian and military realms. “Therein lies perhaps another complication,” says Roper, namely the “challenge of how to determine that which is capable of military operations, and that which is used in a day-to-day context just to support the things we take for granted; for example, the use of our phones and GPS devices”.

The functionality of several of Nato’s key ISR assets is also highly dependent on reliable linkages to satellite networks, one example being the Global Hawk Block 40 drone, now on the organisation’s inventory as a high-altitude reconnaissance platform. This aircraft, says Roper, “has a dependency on space technologies for [its] communications, both in terms of control of the air vehicle and also the movement of data from the sensors back to the exploitation nodes”.

This crossover in dependency between communications satellites, and military and commercial assets on the ground, has illustrated to Nato planners just how important it is to go beyond liaising with defence ministries in defining its ISR strategy for outer space. “There are obviously multiple other stakeholders, from government, from academia, from the commercial industrial sector, and so on,” says Roper. Consequently, Nato has made a special effort in reaching out to agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to deepen its understanding of how best to approach operations in the limitless void above Earth’s atmosphere.

“The synchronisation of space assets and resources, the effective interoperability and the investment in those efforts, is where we are going to spend some time and energy over the coming years.”

“We’re looking to create novel partnerships, with a lowercase ‘p’,” says Roper, emphasising the political sensitivities inherent to the militarisation of a domain long considered to be the preserve of high science and telecommunications. “There is a recognition that Nato, as an entity, can’t do this alone, and partnering with those who have already considerable knowledge and understanding of the space domain is going to be key.”


Earth’s orbital infrastructure that is under the jurisdiction of Nato member states.


Teething problems

It will take some years for the alliance’s space policy to mature, says Roper. In the meantime, “Nato is in the process of identifying the potential to establish its own space operations centre,” he says. Within NCI itself, “we’re also investigating the potential establishment of a space technology centre to provide a complementary set of services and support to Nato’s space mission”.

Budgeting for this new expansion heavenward will be hard. While the cost-per-kilo of launching satellites and other infrastructure into orbit is continuing to fall, investing in space “still comes at a cost”, says Roper. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the ISR chief predicts most of Nato’s spending in this area will be concentrated on establishing the organisational structure that will underpin its efforts in harmonising operational standards. “Then we will also look in parallel with partnering with industry, and also [with] academia, to see how we can optimally use the space domain to really refine our ISR functions and capabilities,” he adds. Time is of the essence in this regard. Nato is currently evaluating possible successors to its Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWACS) programme, which is due to go out of service in 2035. “We’re not necessarily looking at replacing the current AWACS aircraft with a similar air-breathing manned platform,” says Roper, but instead a broader communications architecture that comprises a mixture of satellite-based sensors and with more traditional ISR assets like surveillance aircraft.

Putting more sensitive military apparatus in space, however, raises the question of how it should be protected, concedes Roper. “The synchronisation of space assets and resources, the effective interoperability and the investment in those efforts, is where we are going to spend some time and energy over the coming years.”

Another area that will require considerable thought – and a great deal of tact – will lie in how the alliance balances the enthusiasm of certain member states for militarising space with those who are considerably more reluctant. “We know, of course, that sovereign nations – albeit Nato partners – have their own national space policies and strategies [that], indeed, may be beyond what Nato has agreed to as an alliance,” concedes Roper, a reference perhaps to the US, which has pursued a burning urge to investigate everything from orbital laser and microwave-based weapons to new forms of electronic warfare dedicated to the disruption of enemy satellite networks.

The alliance itself does not endorse such a vision of space (“There is no intention of weaponising the space domain under a Nato flag – not at all,” says Roper), a reflection in part of the more cautious attitudes towards the issue exhibited by member states like Germany, the UK and Italy. Nevertheless, as the cost of space travel continues to decrease and the alliance’s potential adversaries advertise their increasing willingness to experiment with militarising this vast and lonely frontier, it seems to be a question of not if but when we will see the Nato insignia emblazoned on certain types of orbital infrastructure.

Currently, this possibility is far from the minds of Roper and his colleagues at the NCI Agency. Their task, as they see it, is one of harmonisation, preparing the ground for Nato’s member nations to work together in space towards a common goal. Precisely what that mission will be remains to be seen.

Nato is looking to replace its AWACS programme with a combination of satellite-based sensors and more traditional ISR assets like surveillance aircraft.
Militaries have increasingly caused major disruption by targeting the satellite infrastructure underpinning an enemy’s navigation and phone networks.

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