Outer space: the new horizon on EU’s strategic autonomy

Outer space: the new horizon on EU’s strategic autonomy. Picture of the sun in the night sky from space. Photo: Qimono
Picture of the sun in the night sky from space. Photo: Qimono

In just three years, countries are increasingly taking a weaponised approach to outer space, specifically to satellites’ protection and the development of strategies and plans to make space infrastructures more secure and resilient to potential disruptions -such as cyberattacks, data theft or the blocking of satellite-based communications-, among others. This is the case of the creation of the US Space Force in December 2019, formed for the first time as an independent branch within the Armed Forces -after having been a Command within the Air Force since 1982. France has launched its first-ever military space exercise (Aster X) in 2021. Also, NATO acknowledged in 2019 that space is a new operational domain alongside sea, land, air and cyberspace. Even more, in 2021 NATO affirmed that an attack to, from or within space represents a challenge to the Alliance’s security, thus leading to the invocation of Article 5 if deemed necessary. It is not by chance that NATO established the first Space Centre in Germany in 2020, and also announced the setting-up of the first Centre of Excellence for military space in Toulouse (France). 

However, it is not only about the risk of outer space becoming a new battlefield. There is a growing trend in the securitisation of traditionally civilian issues such as fostering a competitive space industry, space debris management or how to create commercial and political arrangements for secure connectivity between regions (and thus having more influence in other countries). First, more and more countries are present in outer space – and not only from the West; also from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Arabian ones. This means that rules at stake are no longer adapted to current times: there has been a shift from a previous scenario with a small number of space stations and satellites governed by a few countries to a proliferation of countries, projects and capabilities. To give an example, China is already looking to launch its second space station into orbit after the Tiangong-1 prototype which was active between 2011 and 2018. Also, since Xi Jinping launched the D60 policy directive in 2014 -one year after he came into power-, which enabled larger private participation and investment in China’s space industry, it is estimated that there are now more than 78 active companies. South Africa launched the MDASat constellation of three nanosatellites in early January 2022 to gather critical data aiming to improve both the safety and security of South Africa’s marine resources. Projected scenarios foresee that there will be 125 new satellites in 23 African countries by 2025.

Second, new challenges for space security are emerging with the increasing presence of so-called New Space companies, whose services portfolio, unlike legacy companies, is fully devoted to space knowledge, capabilities and expertise. Whether or not they collaborate with the government – as is already the case between SpaceX and NASA – a dialogue is needed to address important issues such as public-private coordination in the event of signal interruptions, security guarantees against cyber-attacks on a private satellite containing personal data of citizens from a certain country, how to ensure transparency in equipment interoperability, or how a collective response should be given if certain private capabilities are hijacked by illegitimate actors, such as terrorist groups, organised crime or rogue regimes. On the economic side, rules are also needed to manage space mobility between public and private satellites across space, in order to avoid collisions which might damage security, resilience and the economic sustainability of infrastructures.

Where is the EU’s strategic autonomy in outer space?

Space policy is nothing new to the EU, but it is only now that it has been given the outlook of strategic autonomy, both in markets and in security and defence. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the European space industry recorded a €1 billion drop in sales in 2020 (a 13% decrease year on year), an unprecedented figure in the past 30 years, according to the leading European association ASD Eurospace. This explains why Commissioner Breton recently announced the creation of a comprehensive package of measures:

  • The launch of the CASSINI space investment fund with an investment capacity of at least €1 billion to support new space start-ups;
  • The use of public procurement in a strategic way to reduce the commercial risk of new trials (test and de-risk), provide security to start-ups and build confidence with private investors in space projects;
  • The development of a technology roadmap with long-term plans and investments coordination in space innovation through a Space Partnership;
  • Greater communication between all industrial sectors working on space capabilities through the Space Launcher Industry Alliance and the Space Traffic Management Strategy. This is not only about space companies, but also about dependences on the supply chains from other industries, such as semiconductors, or industries which may impinge on European leadership over space, such as quantum technology.

The second pillar of measures touches on security and defence. The launch announcement of a Strategy on Defence and Space in 2023 and the integration of more space issues into the expected Strategic Compass are positive news due to the urgency of this topic, but also because they represent a major evolution with respect to previous strategies. The 2000 strategy addressed how to improve scientific knowledge, foster its benefits to society and how to strengthen the space market. Next strategies from 2011 and 2016 made reference to security issues, but mainly for civilian affairs. As of 2022, Borrell has committed to developing new mechanisms to respond to a space which is likely to become a battlefield. The idea is to focus on space domain awareness, the reinforcement of dual-use space infrastructures, a Galileo Threat Response Mechanism, and a first joint exercise by March 2022, among others. Additionally, space was included for the first time as a critical infrastructure in the latest proposal for the Directive on the Resilience of Critical Entities.

There is no doubt that the EU has positioned outer space as a new asset on its strategic autonomy’s horizon. There are still many issues to be discussed, resolved and even opened up. Some are: how to tackle the use of space data markets to increase the economic competitiveness of European companies and greater collaboration with each other; the need to carry out a mapping on existing assets, dependences and shortcomings in several project scenarios which are significant, critical or vital to assess and ensure the resilience of supply chains for space capabilities; which cooperation instruments should exist between member states, the EU and the European Space Agency to make sure funding for innovation is impactful; how to cooperate for a joint response to security and defence threats (e.g. following the cyber-diplomacy model on coordinated attribution at the EU level, or giving more competences); or how to interweave space policy with other plans in semiconductors, quantum technology and cyberspace, among others.

The opportunity is evident. It is nothing new, but it is without a doubt an ongoing process which needs to live up to current demands. There are many issues on the table. It is time to start and engage in dialogues.

Image: Picture of the sun in the night sky from space. Photo: Qimono