The new reality of the space-defence nexus


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giancarlo La Rocca
Giancarlo La Rocca

Resident Fellow at Istituto Affari Internazionali

Picture of Alessandro Marrone
Alessandro Marrone

Head of Defence Programme at Istituto Affari Internazionali

Do not normalise the war

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One year ago, Russia escalated its illegal invasion of Ukraine to a full-scale, all-out war on a sovereign, European nation. Friends of Europe pays homage to the first anniversary of this unprovoked and unjustified attack with a series of articles, podcasts and events that tap into the expertise and experience of leading activists, Ukrainian officials, artists, NATO representatives, and security and defence experts and call upon us all to not normalise this war.

Europe, multilateral institutions and the global community have learned some tough lessons about the arrangements put in place to prevent acts of aggression or to guide our actions once they take place, including approaches to multipolar geopolitics, supply chains with illiberal nations, as well as Europe-wide and global agreements in a post-World War 2 world. The war has upended so much that we previously took for granted. For these reasons, normalising this war is not an option. Our commemorative activities aim to identify steps towards the ultimate goals of justice and peace.

Contributors include Friends of Europe’s Luke O’Callaghan White and Senior Fellows Jamie SheaChris Kremidas-Courtney and Paul Taylor; the Africa-Europe Foundation’s Youssef Travaly; Ukrainian European Young Leaders (EYL40) Emine Dzhaparova and Oleksandra MatviichukJaime Nadal, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative for Ukraine; Business Ombudsman Roman Waschuk; LGBTQ+ activist of KyivPride, Edward ReeseDavid Rowe, Professor and Fulbright NATO Security Studies Scholar; Borys Tarasyuk, former Ukrainian foreign affairs minister; journalist Maryana DrachInna Shevchenko, Ukrainian author, journalist at Charlie Hebdo and leader at FEMEN International; artist Markus Georg Reintgen; and Philippe Cori, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director Europe and Central Asia; and Giancarlo La Rocca and Alessandro Marrone of the Istituto Affari Internazionali.

Find out more here.

Satellites have become an essential part of societies and the space economy is thriving worldwide with blooming companies and services. In the meantime, the war triggered by Russia in Ukraine has opened a ‘space front’. It is a stark reminder of the nature of space as a warfighting domain and offers some lessons to be learned.

Space has already modified the way war is waged because of its integration into the classic operational domains. At the European Space Conference in January 2023, High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell remarked that space “is a key resource or battlefield for security and defence.” In his words, 2022 was a “wake-up call” for Europeans and the international community in terms of security and space. The ongoing conflict can be considered the first peer-to-peer confrontation directly involving the space domain. Indeed, the dependence of military operations on satellites started with the First Gulf War and continued in Afghanistan and Syria, where there was reliance on commercial entities but the opponents lacked assets in orbit. However, Ukraine is proving reactive and clever in integrating space capabilities against a conventional, space and nuclear power like Russia, thanks to the support of Western actors.

The orbital environment is more contested than ever, as the Ukrainian front has highlighted. At the dawn of the Russian invasion, two space actions prepared ground operations. The first was a cyber-attack on the KA-SAT network, owned by US satellite communication company Viasat and operated by a Eutelsat subsidiary. This intrusion significantly impacted the network, which provided services to Ukrainian military units, by shattering thousands of end-user terminals and also affected energy infrastructures in Europe. The second action was a widespread disruption of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) signals, focused within the Ukrainian borders but extended to the Kaliningrad enclave, with repercussions on civil aviation across Europe. The twofold manoeuvre conducted by Russia through cyber and electronic warfare compounded dilemmas for the Ukrainian forces and impacted their military’s command and control abilities.

An integral part of military operations is satellite communications

During the first twelve months of conflict, satellites have played a major role in documenting the situation on the ground, giving a near real-time perspective of the fight and somehow penetrating through the fog of war, allowing the assessment of operational details and losses or even confirming atrocities committed by Moscow. Satellite data has also provided information on enemy strategies and purposes, as in the case of images of Russian columns at the border, which revealed the Russian intention to attack, or in that of mass graves dug well before launching massacres against civilians. The value of satellite data has been recognised by the Russian side too, to the point that the US sanctioned a Chinese company providing radar imagery to the Wagner Group.

The European Satellite Centre (SatCen) has been mobilised to provide geo-intelligence to Kyiv, elaborating on tasks active since the Minsk accords and in line with the well-established Copernicus Security services that are critical for decision-making, from conflict damage assessment and critical infrastructure analysis to reference maps. Other European entities such as Iceye are providing Ukraine with data activated by civil society and charity organisations. These activities recognise the value of space and confirm the strategic relevance of commercial assets for EU security in and from space. It is clear that the role of SatCen and Copernicus – already essential to provide EU institutions and member states with key intelligence – have margins of growth in this perspective, for instance, by expanding on the partnership agreements with Ukraine on Earth observation that have been in place since 2018.

GNSS is another key instrument on the battlefield, especially when it comes to guided munitions. On this, the declaration of operational capability of the Galileo High Accuracy Service (HAS) can potentially represent an improved contribution by Europe, yet there is a long way to go for the awaited Public Regulated Service (PRS).

Moreover, an integral part of military operations is satellite communications. SpaceX plays the main role in providing Ukrainian actors with access to the Starlink constellation. The system was hit by Russian signal intelligence operations in attempts to disable its services, which in turn required enhancements by SpaceX on cyber defence. Such a direct, relevant and autonomous role by a private actor in the conflict is a novelty for contemporary warfighting, and Russia has publicly stated at the UN level that commercial assets are considered legitimate targets of retaliation. Despite the initial unwavering support, SpaceX adopted a wobbly posture, questioning its own involvement and trying at times to withdraw from its direct support to Ukraine by distinctively opposing the so-called ‘weaponization’ of Starlink by Ukrainian forces. The absence of a strong European contribution in the field is strident and emphasises the strategic need for the IRIS2 – the programme for an EU-owned constellation of communications satellites for EU member states and partners – which seems to have a long road ahead before it is market-ready.

Europe must prepare for the new reality of the space-defence nexus

Overall, space systems are intelligence and defence assets but also targets for the enemy. On one hand, communication, geo-intelligence and navigation services are necessary for effective Ukraine operations. On the other, repercussions resulting from the sanctions against Russia, which had a heavy impact on Europe but imposed a much more substantial toll on Moscow’s space programme, are a concern. From launchers to scientific programmes, the European sector had grown too dependent on Russia, with no resilience built after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Europe must prepare for the new reality of the space-defence nexus. The implementation of the Strategic Compass will have to be strengthened by a serious 360° reflection on strategic autonomy in space, supported by political will from member states. The European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council is an initial positive result, supporting space during unfavourable economic times. Moreover, ESA has upgraded its involvement and overall credibility in the security dimensions, from secure connectivity and the Rapid and Resilient Response Accelerator, to initiatives on cyber resilience. The forthcoming EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence is expected to be an important document when it comes to the protection of space systems, the preparedness of the response chain and the cultural mindset surrounding space. Last but not least, the European space community should move towards including Ukraine and its vibrant space sector, which is rich in expertise, infrastructure and assets.

This article is a contribution from a member or partner organisation of Friends of Europe. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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