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Space and Defence: The Latest Worldwide Trend

After the actions taken by the United States towards a space force plan last February, France too is now working on the creation of a space unit for military defense to be activated starting from September 2019. The announcement was given by the French President Emmanuel Macron during a speech in front of the French armed forces at the annual parade that takes place on 13th of July, on the eve of Bastille Day. It is therefore likely that in a few months the air force will change its name to l’Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace: the sky and space army.

The idea of improving the French defense strategy was first given by the Minister of Defence Florence Parly, who already back in September 2018 underlined the necessity of creating a more capable and effective defense of the telecommunication systems in orbit. The aim, explained Macron last Saturday, will be “ensuring the development and the strengthening of our defense capacities into orbit and improve our knowledge around the more general space situation, in order to better protect our satellites.”

The amount of money that would need to be spent and the number of workers that would have to be employed remains uncertain and forecasting in this new and complex scenario is difficult. However, taking in account what was stated by President Macron, one aspect seems to be clear: the new space army will not be an independent body, but rather merged into the existing air force to form a new military unit.

France is aiming to boost its space strategy both in civil and military terms, especially since the ministerial conference of the European Space Agency (ESA), which will be held in Spain this November, with the purpose of implementing an autonomous European space policy, will give France the perfect opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in this field. France’s goal is to establish itself as a leader of this new European project.

A similar strategy was inaugurated by the American President Donald Trump last February, signing the Space Policy Directive No. 4: a document setting guidelines for the implementation of a military force devoted to the defense of space and dependent on the US Air Force.  Initially conceived as a force in its own right, the sixth branch of the US Army will be created by the Pentagon within the Aeronautics department, with a budget yet to be defined but which has been estimated to reach 13 billion dollars.

In addition to land, water and air, space is now considered by many countries the fifth of the battlefields. Although official recognition by NATO will come this December, after it already recognized the “battlefield” of Data and Cybersecurity in 2016. It is space that countries like China and Russia are now investing a great amount of their attention. Reports from years past have consistently shown Russia and China’s militarization of space, and the French Minister of Defence has even accused Moscow of being responsible for an act of espionage against the Franco-Italian military satellite Athena-Fidus in 2017.

Indeed, together with the more general ongoing “space race”, the French reaction is mainly due to this supposed episode of espionage carried out by Russia. When the Athena-Fidus satellite was engaging in the conventional rotation phase and was closely approached by the Russian space carrier Louch-Olymp, known for its highly advanced reception skills.

“He came so close that we could have assumed he was trying to intercept our communications,” explained the French Defense Director, recalling that “trying to listen to their neighbors is not only not friendly, it is an act of espionage”.

Paris said it had reacted to the incident by taking “appropriate measures”, continuing to monitor the Moscow satellite until it moved away from the Athena-Fidus, “to continue on your route and get closer to other targets”.

“We saw it coming and we took the necessary measures. We watch it carefully. We also observed that it continued to operate actively in the following months with other objectives, but tomorrow, who tells us that it will not return to one of our satellites?” continued Madame Parly.

Even in space, therefore, we are using terms like espionage, referring to some countries’ ability to intercept and extract information from telecommunications satellites. Today, 65 percent of the satellites in orbit belong to member countries of NATO, though China has already planned a massive colonization of the earth’s orbit, with the official aim of improving telecommunications systems and the speed of data transmission. An action on this directive has already been taken by Beijing in January of this year, when thanks to a bridge satellite, the Asian power was the first country to land on the most remote side of the Moon.

The United Kingdom has also recently declared it is going to take part in what now looks like a proper space race. During the 2019 Chief of the Air Staff’s Air and Space Power Conference in London on 18 July, Secretary of State for Defense Penny Mordaunt outlined the initiatives that she said would enhance the UK’s defense capabilities in the face of evolving threats from hostile actors in space. The initial amount that will be devoted to the initiative will be GBP30 million, an amount that will undoubtedly increase and that represents a reverse trend in regard to the latest downward trajectories in British military spending.

The UK, however, instead of working closely with neighboring EU countries, announced it will enter into a partnership with the US in operation Olympic Defender, a US-led international coalition formed to strengthen deterrence against hostile adversaries in space. The new coalition goes under the name of Artemis and will see the deployment of eight British liaison officers at the Combined Space Operations Center in California.

Therefore, in the absence on one side of a joint action by NATO in space defense, and on the other side by a European one, countries are acting independently or through bilateral agreements.

The actions taken by the UK towards the US, if they are consistent with the path Britain will take after Brexit, could also simply represent the beginning of a process of alliances that will one day be recognized under NATO, together with France, or even a potential future common European Space Defense Force. However, in Europe, defense-related matters are still exclusive responsibility of Member States and the creation of common EU space force would imply the revision of the Lisbon Treaty and a unanimous agreement on a new one.

Written by Agnese Gambuzzi, European Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre.