NATO, the U.S. and Russia have a new domain to compete and conflict over: space.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Wednesday that the U.S. saw space as as "theater of military operations" and that the development of the U.S. Space Force posed a threat to Russia.
"The U.S. military-political leadership openly considers space as a military theater and plans to conduct operations there," Putin said at a meeting with defense officials in Sochi, according to Russian news agency TASS.
"For preserving strategic supremacy in this field the United States is accelerating creation of its space forces, which are already in the process of operative preparations," Putin said, adding that the world's leading countries are fast-tracking the development of modern military space systems and dual purpose satellites and that Russia needed to do the same.
"The situation requires us to pay increased attention to strengthening the orbital group, as well as the rocket and space industry as a whole."
Russia opposed the militarization of space, Putin insisted, but said "at the same time the march of events requires greater attention to strengthening the orbital group and the space rocket and missile industry in general."
Putin's comments Wednesday reiterated those he made in late November to his security council, in which he said he was "seriously concerned" about NATO's "attempts to militarize outer space."
That comment came after NATO had declared space a fifth "operational domain" for the military alliance, alongside air, land, sea and cyber.
"Space is part of our daily life here on Earth. It can be used for peaceful purposes. But it can also be used aggressively," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a meeting of foreign ministers on November 20.
"Satellites can be jammed, hacked or weaponized. Anti-satellite weapons could cripple communications and other services our societies rely on, such as air travel, weather forecast or banking," he said. "Space is also essential to the alliance's deterrence and defense," Stoltenberg added, referencing the organization's ability to navigate, to gather intelligence, and to detect missile launches.
"Making space an operational domain will help us ensure all aspects are taken into account to ensure the success of our missions," he said. "For instance, this can allow NATO planners to make a request for allies to provide capabilities and services, such as satellite communications and data imagery."
He said that around 2,000 satellites currently orbit the Earth with around half of them owned by NATO countries.
Stoltenberg insisted that "NATO has no intention to put weapons in space. We are a defensive alliance." He added the alliance's approach to space will remain fully in line with international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is a global agreement considered a foundation stone of international space law.
The treaty was first signed by the U.K., U.S. and then-Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to promote the peaceful exploration of space. It banned the placing of nuclear weapons in space and limited the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only. It also established that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty on any part of it.
There are other space treaties covering, for example, the rescue of astronauts, the moon, the International Space Station (ISS) and liability for damage caused by space objects. Still, the use of space for defensive activities is likely to be litigious and provocative territory.
It's not the first time that space has been seen as a potential realm for defense though, especially during the Cold War. The "Strategic Defense Initiative" was a program first initiated in 1983 under President Ronald Reagan. The aim of the program was to develop an anti-ballistic missile system that was designed to shoot down nuclear missiles in space, with potential missile attacks from the Soviet Union specifically in mind.
It was dubbed "Star Wars" because it envisaged that technologies like space-based x-ray lasers could be used as part of the defensive system. Funding shortages as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the SDI was never built.
The idea of space dominance and defense has gained more traction in recent years, however, and in 2018, President Donald Trump floated the idea of developing another military branch, the "Space Force." He said the idea of a Space Force had started as a joke but he had then decided it was a "great idea."
"Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea," Trump said. "We have the Air Force, we'll have the Space Force." In June 2018, he ordered the Pentagon to begin the creation of the new branch.
At the start of 2019, the U.S. unveiled an overhaul of its missile defense program in its "Missile Defense Review" in which it stated the need for a "comprehensive approach to missile defense against rogue state and regional missile threats." The review also recognized "space is a new war-fighting domain, with the Space Force leading the way" and said it would ensure "American dominance in space."
In a speech presenting more detail on the Missile Defense Review, Trump said the U.S. would "invest in a space-based missile defense layer. It's new technology. It's ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense," he said.
"The system will be monitored, and we will terminate any missile launches from hostile powers, or even from powers that make a mistake. It won't happen. Regardless of the missile type or the geographic origins of the attack, we will ensure that enemy missiles find no sanctuary on Earth or in the skies above."
Russia responded angrily to the comments, saying it was tantamount to the U.S. relaunching the Cold War-era "Star Wars" program. According to a statement from Russia's foreign ministry, reported by Reuters, Russia condemned the strategy as an act of confrontation and it urged Washington to reconsider its plans.
"The strategy, de facto, gives the green light to the prospect of basing missile strike capabilities in space," the statement said. "The implementation of these ideas will inevitably lead to the start of an arms race in space, which will have the most negative consequences for international security and stability," it said.
"We would like to call on the U.S. administration to think again and walk away from this irresponsible attempt to re-launch, on a new and more high-tech basis, the still-remembered Reagan-era 'Star Wars' program," it said, Reuters reported.
Experts say Russia is wary of the U.S., and NATO, opening up a new operational frontier in space as Russia would be easily out-competed by the combined NATO countries' technological expertise, advances and weaponry in space.
"I think when the Russians hear this, they primarily think of the 'Strategic Defense Initiative', they think of missile defense, and those are the kinds of things they can't compete in those areas as well and something they would be very keen to avoid (competing over). The question is, what is NATO actually going to do here?," Daragh McDowell, principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC Wednesday.
Russia was quick to criticize NATO's announcement of space as a new operational domain with Putin telling his security council that "we are also seriously concerned about the NATO infrastructure approaching our borders, as well as the attempts to militarize outer space."
Earlier this year, Putin had said Russia needs to heavily upgrade its space industry, telling his security council in April that "it is obvious that it is necessary to fundamentally modernize the rocket and space industry," according to news agency TASS. He also said that leading positions in space exploration were essential for solving national development tasks, ensuring the country's security and technological and economic competitiveness, TASS reported.
Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and Global Political Research at TS Lombard, told CNBC Wednesday that Russia had spent considerable time and effort, in the last few decades, developing technologies to defend against "any conceivable U.S. strategic defense or anti-missile defense capabilities."
"And if the U.S. were hypothetically to develop new capabilities in outer space, then Russia would have to come up with new responses in addition to the weapon system that Putin announced with some fanfare last year," he said, referencing Putin's revealing of new nuclear weapons in March 2018 that he said were "invincible."