(RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany) — At the heart of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a mysterious new division of military personnel is quietly working to keep America and its allies safe from hostile attacks—in space.
NATO’s Space Centre was created just two years ago in response to satellite threats from Russia and China; and as space becomes increasingly militarized, it is now an integral part of Allied Air Command.
ABC News was given exclusive access to the facility, located at AirCom’s headquarters. Below ground, inside the highly classified Situation Center, space experts from 12 NATO nations—including American Guardians from the U.S. Space Force– are all working to keep an eye on the more than 8,000 satellites currently orbiting the Earth, and sharing their findings across the alliance.
“We look at what is the environment, what’s changed since yesterday? Did something launch into orbit? Was there a fragmentation? Did a satellite hit something?” NATO Space Center Director Lt. Col. John Patrick told ABC News
Russia’s war in Ukraine has made their task more important than ever as Ukraine now relies on satellites for its communications. High-resolution satellite images have also helped with surveillance– showing everything from troop movements, to bodies lining the streets of Russian-held areas.
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Russia has responded by threatening to take out the satellites helping Ukraine.
Russia’s senior foreign ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov told the United Nations last month that “quasi-civilian infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike,” and that Western civilian and commercial satellites that helped Ukraine’s war efforts was “an extremely dangerous trend,” according to Reuters.
“Without space-based capabilities to assist, I think you would not see the successes and, really, the heroic actions and defense that you’ve seen from Ukraine,” Deputy Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command, Air Marshal Johnny Stringer told ABC News.
But it’s not just modern warfare. Nearly every aspect of daily llifenow involves satellite technology: from financial systems, computer data, mobile phone networks, power grids and air defense. And as dependence on satellites increases, so too do the threats to Allied assets in space, NATO officials said.
“We do worry about what, you know, our competitors, true potential adversaries, may have. And we need to make sure that our capabilities at least match, if not exceed. So the importance of space is not lost on anybody,” Stringer said.
NATO officials said space conflict would likely look a lot different than what one would expect. Some of NATO’s concerns have to do with space-based technology capable of targeting our satellites; such as anti-satellite weapons, signal jamming, and lasers.
“So, it’ll be something that’s interfering with systems. It may be nefarious, or may not be. So, we try to investigate, ‘why is that receiver having an issue,’ or ‘what’s going on with that?"” Patrick said.
In November 2021, Russia carried out an anti-satellite test, blowing up one of its own, according to U.S. officials. Some of that debris came dangerously close to the International Space Station, forcing astronauts to shelter in place and adjust their trajectory.
“So, in terms of being irresponsible, that is really high up the list. So anti-satellite launches like Russia did just compromised space for everybody,” Stringer said.
Officers however wouldn’t confirm with ABC News whether NATO allies have their own offensive capabilities in space.
“What I can’t do is talk specifics on that side. But what I can reiterate is the importance of making sure that our access to space is what we need it to be,” said Stringer.
China also continues to be a top concern, officials said. Beijing conducted its own ASAT test in 2007, and was recently responsible for an uncontrolled rocket re-entry, according to U.S. officials.
“We recently were monitoring a piece of a Chinese vehicle that was coming back, and it was not a controlled reentry. And so there was a lot of concern among the NATO nations to know where that reentry was going to happen, to ensure that there wasn’t danger to the population or the environment,” U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Caitlin Diffley told ABC News.
Satellites even play a key role in nuclear defense. The fear is that a threat—or perceived threat—to nuclear early-warning satellites could escalate conflicts.
“Space-based capabilities are really a vital part of how we understand nuclear capability, not just in Russia, but more globally,” Stringer said.
With space becoming increasingly important to both military and civilian operations, NATO declared in 2019 Space as a fifth operational domain—alongside Air, Land, Maritime, and Cyberspace. It also outlined its space policy; recognizing that attacks to, from, or within space could lead to the invocation of Article 5—which would compel the U.S. and its allies to a military response.
“Essentially, it would be depending on what had been done in the space environment,” Stringer said. “Making sure that our assets are safe and protected up in space is vital.”
Asked whether he believes space conflict is inevitable, Stringer told ABC, “I think actually, because space is such an important domain, we are going to have to aim for that potential, and that requires a raft of capability.”
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