US allies in Europe are following in America’s footsteps and developing their own military space commands. In Dec 2018, the U.S. announced the elevation of U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM). Since then, the four largest countries in Europe announced their own similar institutions: French Space Command, the German Air and Space Operations Centre, the UK Space Command, and the Italian Joint Space Operations Command. Three of these are already operational, most recently UK Space Command, which began operations on 1 Apr 2021. These new commands are deepening military space ties with the U.S., which benefits both sides of the Atlantic by pooling information, capabilities, infrastructure, and expertise against Russian and Chinese threats, while also laying the groundwork for independent European military space capabilities.
European Motives for Military Space Commands
Like the United States, these European states responding to perceived Russian and Chinese militarization of space and their own increasing reliance on satellites.[i] Satellites serve essential purposes for governments—such as secure communications, intelligence collection, navigation and targeting, and missile warning— as well as in the everyday life of citizens, such as enabling GPS, phones, television, financial transactions, and weather forecasts.[ii] In the 21st century, Russia and China have rapidly advanced their counterspace capabilities—systems that can destroy or disrupt satellites. [iii] Counterspace capabilities include missiles, satellite-borne weapons, lasers, cyberattacks, and signal interference. [iv] In 2020, Russia tested both an anti-satellite missile and a satellite-borne weapon. [v]
European states cannot effectively secure their interests in space independently and have thus sought out international cooperation. Space situational awareness (SSA)—the ability to identify and locate objects in orbit, and an essential capability that enables space operations—requires a global network of radar and sensors, which no single European countries possesses. [vi] Additionally, it is challenging for European countries to display credible deterrence against Russian, Chinese, or other attacks, on their systems. European countries, except France, lack counterspace capabilities, and these states cannot simply rely on NATO’s Article Five mutual defense clause, which has never been publicly applied to space assets. [vii]
Thus, European states are presented with three multinational options to secure their military interests in space: working closely with NATO, the European Union, or the U.S. NATO declared space an “operational domain” in 2019, established the NATO Space Centre in 2020, and announced a Space Center of Excellence in 2021.[viii] These decisions will likely yield long term benefits for the alliance, but the new institutions do not include an integrated SSA network or have operational command of any space systems.[ix] The European Union has an SSA capability and Italy, Germany, France, and the Netherlands are cooperating to develop a military SSA network, though the former effort is primarily civilian and the latter is nascent.[x] The U.S., by contrast, has the most robust military SSA capability in the world, advanced space and counterspace capabilities, decades of operational experience and—most importantly—is actively seeking out partnerships with European militaries. [xi] Cooperation with the U.S. is therefore the only feasible near-term model for space security for these states.
U.S.-European Military Cooperation in Space
Therefore, the development of European space military commands can be understood as an attempt to mirror U.S. institutions to advance military space cooperation with the U.S. Developing institutions parallel to those of their more-capable ally provides a natural touchpoint for sharing of intelligence, strategies, and operations. This transatlantic institutional alignment allows for the exchange of liaisons, demonstrates commitment to being a serious partner on the issue, and limits the cultural and bureaucratic barriers to cooperation. Before the creation of a counterpart institution, U.S. Space Command would try to contact a foreign counterpart by “fishing around with papers… like ‘What’s the number?’” as one senior U.S. space commander explained last year.[xii]
This institutional alignment is accelerating already-ongoing military cooperation in space between the U.S. and Europe. The UK joined Operation Olympic Defender, a U.S.-led plan for defending space assets, in 2019, and France, Italy, and Germany are reportedly interested in following suit.[xiii] In 2019 and 2020, Germany and France joined the UK in the Combined Space Operations Initiative, a U.S.-led coordinating body for space operations. The UK, France, and Germany all participate in the U.S. managed Schriever Wargame, which simulates a future conflict in space.[xiv] The UK, France, Germany, and Italy all have agreements with the U.S. to share SSA information.[xv]
U.S. Gains from Cooperation
In cooperating with the U.S., European militaries have much to gain, but also much to offer in return. European militaries can enhance a U.S.-led space security apparatus by contributing information, capabilities, infrastructure, and expertise.
France, Germany, Italy, and the UK have a combined four radar and five optical sensors that can feed into U.S. SSA systems.[xvi] France and the European Space Agency (ESA)—a space exploration organization comprised of European states—oversee a spaceport in French Guiana and the UK plans to open a spaceport in Scotland in 2022.[xvii] France, Germany, Italy, and the UK are all leading members of the ESA, which has had an independent space launch capability since 1979 and maintains an independent global navigation satellite system called Galileo.[xviii] Combined, government and commercial entities in the four countries have 235 satellites currently in orbit.[xix] In March, France conduced its first ever space military exercise, in collaboration with USSPACECOM and Germany, and is also developing small satellites mounted with lasers to defend high-value satellites.[xx] It is for all these reasons that the 2020 U.S. Defense Space Strategy called for “expand[ed] information sharing” and “align[ment] with allies and partners on space policy.”[xxi]
Cooperation between USSPACECOM and European military space commands will almost certainly grow in the coming decade, probably in the form of more states joining Operation Olympic Defender and the Schriever Wargame, greater exchanges of personnel and information, smaller European states developing their own space commands. These developments appear to benefit both sides of the Atlantic, developing a more robust and redundant space security architecture. This will probably cause adversaries to think twice before targeting the space assets of these U.S. partners, while providing some survivability for space systems should an adversary target U.S. or allied space architecture in a conflict. Additionally, Europe’s perennial desire to avoid reliance on the U.S. will probably prompt European states to also attempt to create independent European military space capabilities over the long term, such as through the growth of the planned European military SSA network. [xxii] As European militaries pursue this dual-tracked approach, it will be up to policymakers in the U.S. and Europe to determine the best long-term structure for aligning their respective capabilities—as well as those of select allies elsewhere in the world—to secure their shared interests in space.
[i] Harry Lye, “Q&A: Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth talks UK Space Command,” Airforce Technology, 23 Feb 2021, https://www.airforce-technology.com/features/qa-air-vice-marshal-harv-smyth-talks-uk-space-command/; AFP Staff Writer, “France will develop ‘powerful’ anti-satellite laser weapons, Parly says,” The Defense Post, 25 Jul 2019, https://www.thedefensepost.com/2019/07/25/france-satellite-laser-weapons/; “France accuses Russia of trying to spy on Franco-Italian military satellite,” France24, 09 Jul 2018, https://www.france24.com/en/20180907-france-accuses-russia-trying-spy-franco-italian-military-satellite-espionage-athena-fidus
[ii] “What Are Satellites Used For?” Union of Concerned Scientists, 15 Jan 2015, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/what-are-satellites-used; “Challenges to Security in Space,” Defense Intelligence Agency, Jan 2019, https://www.dia.mil/Military-Power-Publications/
[v] “Russia tests direct-ascent anti-satellite missile,” U.S. Space Command, 16 Dec 2020, https://www.spacecom.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2448334/russia-tests-direct-ascent-anti-satellite-missile/; “Russia conducts space-based anti-satellite weapons test,” U.S. Space Command, 23 Jul 2020, https://www.spacecom.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2285098/russia-conducts-space-based-anti-satellite-weapons-test/
[vi] Brian Weeden, “Space Situational Analysis Fact Sheet,” Secure World Foundation, May 2017, https://swfound.org/media/205874/swf_ssa_fact_sheet.pdf
[vii] “The North Atlantic Treaty,” NATO, 04 Apr 1949, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_17120.htm
[viii] “NATO Space Centre,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Accessed 28 Mar 2021, https://shape.nato.int/about/aco-capabilities2/nato-space-centre; Christina Mackenzie, “NATO names location for new military space center,” Defense News, 5 Feb 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/space/2021/02/05/nato-names-location-for-new-military-space-center/
[ix] Victoria Samson, “Taking up Space: NATO, Nations and the Rest,” Institut Montaigne, 19 Nov 2020, https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/taking-space-nato-nations-and-rest
[x] Solène Baudouin-Naneix and Liza Raïs, “The European Union and Space Defence,” FINABEL, Aug 2019, https://finabel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/FFT_The_European_Union_and_Space_Defence_Web.pdf; “EUROPEAN MILITARY SPACE SURVEILLANCE AWARENESS NETWORK (EU-SSA-N),” PESCO, Accessed 28 Mar 2021, https://pesco.europa.eu/project/european-military-space-surveillance-awareness-network-eu-ssa-n/
[xi] Brian Weeden, “Space Situational Analysis Fact Sheet,” Secure World Foundation, May 2017, https://swfound.org/media/205874/swf_ssa_fact_sheet.pdf
[xii] Rachel Cohen, “Building a More Global Space Force,” Air Force Magazine, 25 Feb 2020, https://www.airforcemag.com/building-a-more-global-space-force/
[xiii] Theresa Hitchens, “‘Major Milestone’ As Allies Join SPACECOM’s War Plan,” Breaking Defense, 21 May 2020, https://breakingdefense.com/2020/05/major-milestone-as-allies-join-spacecoms-war-plan/
[xiv] Tyler Whiting, “Schriever Wargame: Critical space event concludes,” U.S. Space Command, 4 Nov 2020, https://www.spacecom.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2406716/schriever-wargame-critical-space-event-concludes/
[xv] “US, Peru expand space data sharing partnership,” U.S. Space Command, 20 May 2020, https://www.spacecom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/Article/2193473/us-peru-expand-space-data-sharing-partnership/
[xvi] Bhavya Lal, “Global Trends in Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM),” Institute for Defense Analysis, Apr 2018, https://www.ida.org/-/media/feature/publications/g/gl/global-trends-in-space-situational-awareness-ssa-and-space-traffic-management-stm/d-9074.ashx
[xvii] Alexandra Stickings, “Failure to Lift Off: The UK’s Space Launch Ambitions,” Royal United Services Institute, 24 Feb 2021, https://rusi.org/commentary/failure-lift-uk-space-launch-ambitions#:~:text=Although%20an%20early%20entrant%20into,Union%20to%20operate%20a%20satellite.
[xviii] “Launches Archive,” European Space Agency, Accessed 21 Mar 2021, https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Transportation/Launches_archive; “What is Galileo,” European Space Agency, Accessed 21 Mar 2021, https://www.esa.int/Applications/Navigation/Galileo/What_is_Galileo
[xix] “UCS Satellite Database,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 1 Jan 2021, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/satellite-database
[xx] Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment,” Secure World Foundation, Apr 2020, https://swfound.org/counterspace; Clement Charpentreau, “AsterX: France starts first military exercise in space,” Aerotime Hub, 10 Mar 2021, https://www.aerotime.aero/27437-asterx-france-starts-first-military-exercise-in-space
[xxi] “Defense Space Strategy Summary,” U.S. Department of Defense, Jun 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Jun/17/2002317391/-1/-1/1/2020_DEFENSE_SPACE_STRATEGY_SUMMARY.PDF
[xxii] “Space Defense Strategy,” French Ministry for the Armed Forces, 2019, https://www.defense.gouv.fr/layout/set/popup/content/download/574375/9839912/version/5/file/Space+Defence+Strategy+2019_France.pdf; Erik Brattberg and Tomas Valasek, “EU Defense Cooperation: Progress Amid Transatlantic Concerns,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 21 Nov 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/11/21/eu-defense-cooperation-progress-amid-transatlantic-concerns-pub-80381