A primer on the first ever European Space Strategy for Security and Defence

Strategic Insight 010/2023

Peter O’Halloran

27 April 2023

A primer on the first ever European Space Strategy for Security and Defence

In 2016, the EU Space Strategy outlined the contested and competitive nature of Space as a domain. It also outlined how Europe was becoming more and more dependent on the services and systems of space. The 2022 Strategic Compass further articulated these issues and called for a dedicated strategy to address threats faced by European assets in the space domain. European Union security and defence activities at the same time were becoming increasingly involved in the space domain, by the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund. This updated approach by the EU to security and defence for Space is timely and in line with developments in the larger international environment. Over the last ten years the major space players (United States, China, Russia, Japan and India) have been on a journey to greatly improve their security and defence activities in Space.

On 10 March 2023, the first ever ‘Joint Communication on a European Space Strategy for Security and Defence’ was issued by the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. Our world, our societies, and our economies rely more and more on information and data-related services from space. Our defence and security today is intrinsically linked to the space domain. As Josep Borrell,stated at the launch of the strategy: “Space has become a key enabler not only for our European societies and economies, but also for Security and Defence. Without security, there can be no future in Space.”

The strategy outlines the main threats and capabilities in the space domain that can put at risk space systems and ground infrastructure, building on a common definition of the space domain. To increase EU Member States’ common understanding of the threats, the High Representative is tasked with preparing an annual classified threat analysis report at EU level, drawing on the collective intelligence assets of Member States. The strategy, implemented effectively, will strengthen EU engagement in multilateral fora and will promote norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviours in outer space through concrete and pragmatic steps. It is intended that the strategy will deepen existing space security cooperation, in particular with the United States, and expand exchanges with other partners, including NATO, as well as other like-minded countries. The Commission will soon present to EU Member States their initial steps for the way forward in implementing the strategy.

The new strategy will be a game changer 

Resilience and protection of space systems and services in the EU is proposed by the strategy. The Commission’s purpose is to reduce strategic technological dependencies of the EU by ensuring security of supply for space and defence, in close coordination with the European Defence Agency and the European Space Agency. The Commission proposes to commence preparatory work aimed at ensuring long-term EU autonomous access to space, with particular emphasis on security and defence needs. Consideration of an EU Space Law to provide a common framework for security, safety, and sustainability in Space is proposed. A further measure to increase resilience and protection is the proposed creation of an Information Sharing and Analysis Centre (ISAC) to raise awareness and facilitate exchange on best practice resilience measures for space capabilities by public and commercial bodies.

The strategy also outlines the use of relevant EU tools to respond to space threats, such as space exercises run in conjunction with partners to develop further the EU’s response to space threats and explore solidarity measures. It proposes to develop a methodology to characterise inappropriate behaviours in orbit and protect EU assets by having access to EU collective space domain awareness information through relevant national space commands. A further use of EU tools proposed is the building upon the existing space threat response mechanism, which is currently used for the protection of Galileo and expand to all space systems and services in the EU.

The strategy proposes to make maximum usage of the space domain for defence and security purposes. This is the development of dual use services and will require that account be taken of defence requirements when introducing or evolving EU space programmes. What is proposed is a more interconnected space, defence and security at EU level particularly in research and development. What the strategy wants to achieve is a more proactive methodology to enhance collaborative work between space and defence start-ups and to positively develop skills related to the enhancement of space services for security and defence. To further achieve this maximizing of the space domain for defence and security, the Strategy proposes that two pilot projects be launched – one to test the delivery of initial space domain awareness services building upon capacities of Member States, and a second one to test a new earth observation governmental service as part of the evolution of Copernicus.

The way forward for success

The EU strategy’s main value will be in establishing the cooperation necessary between all EU Member States, including those ‘premier league’ countries with a long history in military space, those that are new to this domain, those that are primarily users rather than suppliers of the domain, and those perhaps less aware of the domain’s importance.

It is therefore paramount that the strategy addresses the coordination of EU and national stakeholders. Given the EU dependency on national assets and multilateral cooperation in the security domain, the EU must find ways to streamline and/or coordinate the use of national assets for military purposes, including to protect other Member States’ assets. Furthermore, the EU needs to define a level of collaboration that is appropriate between EU Member States to ensure implementation, including dialogue and coordination, keeping in mind that some mechanisms require stronger commitments. In this context, the EU could support coordination between its Member States. In addition, the EU needs to define a range of incentives to make EU-wide cooperation more attractive than current bilateral or multilateral partnerships among EU nations or between EU and non-EU countries. A deep-rooted coordination with established mechanisms will be needed to have the necessary integration between various EU institutional stakeholders, based on their respective mandates. These include DG DEFIS, EUSPA, EU Satellite Centre, EU SST as managers of space activities and  EEAS, EMSA, Frontex, DG HOME, DG ECHO as users for security and defence purposes.

Another important area to deliver on during its implementation phase is to provide clarity on when and by what means the EU would react to a potential threat against its space assets. Processes and systems need to be agreed and responsibilities clearly understood by the EU and its Member States.

The international dimension is key to success. The EEAS will become a major player in the successful delivery by providing its expertise in dealing with international partners and engagement with international audiences. Decisions will be required regarding what position to adopt with non-EU stakeholders and these will need clear definition. The space ecosystem will also require the clearly understood role of, and relations with the private sector.

The EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence will be a game changer in the future of military space activities. Its implementation will create a common vision and provide focus for EU Member States to step up their investments. A key to implementation is for EU activities in space to be complemented with efforts across national, multilateral and intergovernmental levels to increase exponentially the capability of the EU to act decisively in this domain.

Enormous opportunity exists for the EU and Member States from the space industry. The global space industry economy has grown from €200B to €470B between 2011 and 2021. Employment has grown by 47% over the same period, with the addition of 17,000 jobs. Global spacecraft manufacturing revenue was estimated at €54B in 2021. The EU predicts that revenue from just two space market segments — Earth Observation and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (services that use GPS or Galileo satellites) — will grow by 150% to reach €500B per year in 2031. Private investment in space has surged since 2015, with approximately €60B committed by non-governmental sources globally, of which nearly half went toward the launch industry.

The Irish opportunity from EU Space Strategy 

Ireland is ideal as a launching state. Ireland’s mild climate and geographical position enable it to offer launches year-round with minimal safety concerns due to flight paths over the Atlantic. Investment in a launch vehicle is not required as there are multiple new launch companies seeking viable launch sites for their operations. As a member of both the European Space Agency and the EU, Ireland is positioned to capture both commercial customers and institutional EU customers. A spaceport and its associated launch capability would serve as a catalyst for the broader Irish space ecosystem. The high-tech nature of space fits well with Ireland’s previous success with the IT sector, and the overlap between the two industries will grow as data-oriented space services continue to expand rapidly. The European Investment Bank has set aside €1B for investment in European space startups, some of which would be available to Irish companies.

To conclude, the new EU space strategy for security and defence is timely. It is now of paramount importance that Ireland reflects it in the new upcoming space strategy for Ireland. Security and defence of the space domain is critical and will become more so into the future. In addition, the economic opportunity for Ireland is too large to ignore.

Brigadier General (Retd) Peter O’Halloran is the former Assistant Chief of the Irish Defence Forces and currently the Vice Chair of SUAS Aerospace, an Irish start up with the mission to develop a world class space port in Ireland.

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