The Combined Space Operations Initiative: an Opportunity for European States?

Space is increasingly considered an operational domain relevant to states’ security, not only because space capabilities benefit multiple economic sectors, thus making space highly strategic, but because some countries have developed a wide range of counter-space technologies (NATO, 2024). Accordingly, national armies have begun urging the development of militarily-relevant space capabilities and the activation of international cooperation over such issue. In fact, the improvement of dual-use, potentially offensive, space technologies evolved as a much faster pace than the elaboration of international space law aiming at regulating the use of space. The Combined Space Operations Initiative (CSpO), involving US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, New Zealand, Italy, Japan and Norway, is one of the multilateral efforts to face the challenge of a militarised space domain, gathering an ever-increasing amount of spacefaring nations. However, this US-ed cooperation is not unproblematic, both because of some policy inconsistencies that limit the US capability of sharing information on space matters, and because of the inhibitory effect that reliance on the US for space security has on some parts of the European space industry and on EU strategic autonomy.

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SpaceX Involvement in Military Operations and EU Space Policy

The space sector in the EU has long been geared toward civilian, scientific, and commercial use. Accordingly, private companies and scientific associations have played a substantial role in space technology innovation (Kriege & Russo, 2000, p.34). However, space is becoming increasingly securitised and militarised, and armed forces are investing more consistently in space assets (Calcagno et al., 2022). Moreover, space technology’s dual-use and slow-to-develop nature leads to a tendency to adapt existing space products and assets to military use and the direct involvement of private and non-defence space companies in military operations. SpaceX, in particular, has become central to several states’ militaries through Starlink, a large-scale low-orbit satellite internet and communication service (Rousselle, 2024). After seeing widespread Ukrainian civilian and military use of Starlink, SpaceX services have been considered by several governments and regional organisations. The EU itself has recently turned to SpaceX to launch four of its Galileo satellites. However, planned and ongoing American military use of SpaceX technologies and assets raises questions over how appropriate EU reliance on SpaceX for rocketry and connectivity would be. First, the agreement with SpaceX undermines the EU’s strategic autonomy, as it delegates fundamental launching services to a private company outside EU jurisdiction. Secondly, it increases dependence on the US both because it is the country that has jurisdiction over SpaceX, and because the launching operations take place from American soil. Thirdly, relying on SpaceX and on the US undermines the autonomist intent of the EU Space Programme, especially of the Galileo project which was meant to become a European alternative to the American navigation system. Fourthly, increasing SpaceX's involvement in US military operations entails broader implications for European defence by increasing the risk of an orbital arms race.

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Space Domain Awareness and the EU’s Securitization of Space

Since the EU introduced the 2021-2027 Space Programme, it has assumed an entrepreneurial role in coining new concepts and terms to frame its increasingly versatile space activities. As the EU’s action in space gradually developed to increase new projects, so did the terminology employed in the EU’s official document addressing space affairs. In particular, the EU conceptual framework for space expanded to include comprehensive notions such as Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Domain Awareness (SDA) that add to the more pragmatic ones of Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) and Space Traffic Management (STM). This paper analyses how diverse notions have come to be in some of the EU’s space-related programmatic documents and how they relate to one another. Such an analysis is key to understanding the current trends of the EU’s action in space, trends which in turn imply restructuring the space policy governance.

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Leaving the (Space) Door Open: ISS Missions as a Platform for International Cooperation

On 3 March, three American and one Russian astronauts took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Falcon-9 rocket, owned by Elon Musk's company SpaceX, to reachthe International Space Station (ISS) (Le Monde, 2024). A US-Russian partnership, sustained by a private actor, might seem quite surprising amidst renewed geopolitical tension. However, neither the space cooperation between the US and Russia nor the active involvement of private companies in public-funded space operations is new in the space field. The growing impact of these trends on the space activities of other actors, such as the EU, will be significant (Jones, 2023).

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An EU Space Law on the Horizon: Decoding Legal Foundations and Navigating Policy Frontiers

In recent years and through the dissemination of documents, strategic initiatives, and legislative measures, the European Union recognised the need for a substantial space regulation framework that would ensure responsible and sustainable activities in outer space. Member States [MSs] have begun drafting national laws to meet space-related challenges such as satellite proliferation, risks of congestion and collision, and security threats against space assets (European Commission, 2023a). To mitigate fragmentation, the EU is ready to establish a dedicated legal framework that aligns withinternational space law within its legal system. As a matter of fact, in the EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence of March 2023, the Commission announced that it is working on the proposal for an EU Space Law. This legal instrument will be available in early 2024 and will allegedly envisage common EU rules for the safety, resilience and sustainability of space activities and operations. The risk of fragmentation in the absence of a regulatory framework canimpact the competitiveness, security, and worldwide influence of EU industries in international fora (European Commission, 2023a). This mesmerising topic has attracted interest from academia, industry, and the private and public sectors which expressed their views through a targeted consultation.

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