(RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany) — At the heart of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a mysterious new division of military personnel is working quietly to protect America and its allies from hostile attacks in space.
The NATO Space Center was created just two years ago in response to satellite threats from Russia and China; and as space becomes increasingly militarized, it has become an integral part of Allied Air Command.
ABC News had exclusive access to the facility, located at AirCom headquarters. Underground, inside the highly classified Situation Center, space experts from 12 NATO nations, including American watchmen from the US Space Force, are all working to keep tabs on the most 8,000 satellites currently orbiting the Earth and sharing their discoveries across the Alliance.
“We look at what is the environment, what has changed since yesterday? Did something launch into orbit? Was there any fragmentation? Did a satellite hit something?” Lt. Col. John Patrick, director of the NATO Space Center, told ABC News
Russia’s war in Ukraine has made their task more important than ever, as Ukraine now relies on satellites for communications. High-resolution satellite images have also aided in the surveillance – showing everything from troop movements to bodies lining the streets of Russian-controlled areas.
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Russia reacted by threatening to withdraw satellites helping Ukraine.
Senior Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov told the United Nations last month that “quasi-civilian infrastructure can be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike” and that Western civilian and commercial satellites that have aided Ukraine’s war efforts were “an extremely dangerous trend”. according to Reuters.
“Without the space-based assist capabilities, I think you wouldn’t see the successes and, really, the heroic actions and the defense that you’ve seen from Ukraine,” the deputy commander of Allied Air Command told ABC News. of NATO, Air Marshal Johnny Stringer. .
But it’s not just modern warfare. Almost every aspect of daily life involves satellite technology: financial systems, computer data, mobile phone networks, power grids and air defense. And as reliance on satellites grows, so do threats to Allied assets in space, NATO officials said.
“We worry about what, you know, our competitors, real potential adversaries, may have. And we have to make sure that our capabilities at least match, if not exceed. So the importance of space isn’t lost on nobody,” Stringer said.
NATO officials have said the space conflict is likely to be very different from what one would expect. Some of NATO’s concerns relate to space technology capable of targeting our satellites; such as anti-satellite weapons, signal jamming and lasers.
“So it’s going to be something interfering with the systems. It may be harmful, or it may not be. So we’re trying to investigate, ‘why is this receiver having a problem’ or ‘what is it? what’s up with that?'” Patrick said.
In November 2021, Russia conducted an anti-satellite test, detonating one of its own, according to US officials. Some of this debris has come dangerously close to the International Space Station, forcing the astronauts to shelter in place and adjust their trajectory.
“So in terms of irresponsibility, that’s really at the top of the list. So the anti-satellite launches like Russia did just compromised space for everybody,” Stringer said.
The officers, however, did not confirm to ABC News whether NATO allies have their own offensive capabilities in space.
“What I can’t do is talk about specifics on that side. But what I can reiterate is the importance of making sure our access to space is what we have. need,” Stringer said.
China also continues to be a major concern, officials said. Beijing conducted its own ASAT test in 2007 and was recently responsible for an uncontrolled rocket re-entry, according to US officials.
“We recently monitored a piece of a returning Chinese vehicle, and it was not a controlled re-entry. And so there was a lot of concern among NATO countries as to where that re-entry was going to happen, to make sure there was no danger to people or the environment,” US 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 conflict.
“Space capabilities are really a critical part of how we understand nuclear capability, not just in Russia, but more globally,” Stringer said.
With space becoming increasingly important for military and civilian operations, in 2019 NATO declared space as its fifth operational domain, alongside air, land, sea and cyberspace. He also outlined his space policy; recognizing that attacks to, from, or in space could lead to the invocation of Article 5, which would compel the United States and its allies into a military response.
“Essentially it would depend on what had been done in the space environment,” Stringer said. “Ensuring our assets are safe and protected in space is vital.”
When asked if he believes space conflicts are inevitable, Stringer told ABC, “I think actually, because space is such an important field, we’re going to have to aim for that potential, and it requires a multitude of abilities.”
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