Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


NATO Hopes its Newest Space Initiative Can Stop Chinese Snooping

The barrage of Chinese space balloons and other types of surveillance equipment that clouded the skies of upwards of 40 countries over 5 continents last month exposed serious flaws in how Western powers police their airspace.

After one of the balloons was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, Beijing stonewalled Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, indicating that when it comes to getting information about these unauthorized surveillance aircraft, we’re on our own. The United States and its NATO allies need cutting-edge intelligence systems to effectively track, share, and identify future intrusions in order to prevent China from mapping out entire countries for their intelligence agencies.

NATO’s newest space initiative can be a boon for the alliance and the U.S. in countering Chinese surveillance, improving our intelligence capacities to help us prevent NATO members from acting outside the alliance’s purview. The U.S. should take the lead in championing this system as a clear warning to China that the U.S. is serious about stopping Chinese surveillance and taking active measures to counter surveillance operations.

NATO’s Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS) initiative would reform intelligence sharing and data collection to better support both the U.S. and the alliance. Funding from NATO member Luxembourg will allow for a constellation of national and commercial satellites to track missile launches and suspicious objects, and map critical infrastructure around the world. Given the “gap” which China’s spy balloon exposed in America’s air defense system, this is welcome news. U.S. intelligence further gathered that four other incursions by Chinese balloons into U.S. airspace went undetected during the current and past administrations, with the latest balloon incursion allowing China to map missile silos and other sensitive areas.

Looming threats have increasingly called into question our nation’s security infrastructure. The American Physical Society (APS) contends that despite billions of dollars of investments, the threat from intercontinental ballistic missiles remains high as we are still unable to consistently track and intercept missile threats. NATO’s APSS system could lay the groundwork for a future constellation of space-based interceptors (SBIs) that will maximize allies’ ability to defend themselves from missile attacks.

For example, the success of China’s hypersonic missile tests necessitates that the U.S. possesses the ability to identify a hypersonic missile’s launch and track its movement across the entire globe. While the new technology promises to do just that, we need systems to ensure that accurate information is relayed to both the U.S. and our allies, reducing any chance that the fog of war could cause a NATO member to act on faulty intelligence.

Streamlining intelligence sharing and making certain that NATO members can collaborate closely with their U.S. counterparts will make our allied airspace more secure against China’s incursions and establish a system through which to exchange and collect data gathered from space assets. Japan, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines have all had Chinese spy balloons intrude into their airspaces to map strategic points and military facilities.

Within NATO, Chinese spies have been able to infiltrate member states in sensitive military areas, with over 250 estimated spies operating within Brussels, where NATO’s headquarters are located. Chinese spies have been mapping out and gathering information on Germany’s Bundeswehr for a number of years. Ensuring that Germany and other NATO members have the ability to leverage their own space-based mapping capabilities with APSS, combined with space-based missile defense, will present a direct challenge to China’s surveillance and missile capabilities.

The APSS system will collect, analyze, and make available to the U.S. and alliance members massive amounts of data that can be used to counter China’s surveillance activities and cutting-edge missile systems. The virtual constellation, Aquila, that will accompany the APPS system will allow allies to aggregate data from multiple alliance members and share it with all NATO members.

As a foundational intelligence-sharing system, the APSS has the potential to allow for the development of even more advanced space-based systems. To ensure that Chinese surveillance operations are a thing of the past, policymakers should support the establishment and utilization of the APSS system in the U.S. and NATO nations.