Military space leaders from France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States addressed the 7th Annual Prague Space Security Conference June 17, 2024. (Photo: Prague Security Studies Institute)

WASHINGTON — When NATO leaders meet July 9-11, space is firmly on the agenda as allies work to build up a stronger collective infrastructure for coordination, and key European space players hasten to develop new capabilities.

“One of the NATO priorities for the summit will be space,” Allied Command Transformation (ACT) said in a May 29 fact sheet.

In the run up to the summit, NATO on June 12-13 held its second NATO Space Operations Commanders’ Conference at Allied Air Command headquarters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Officials from 23 NATO nations attended, as well as close US allies Australia and Japan.

“I was just at the NATO space commanders conference last week, which was a really interesting conversation, and it signposted where NATO might go forward with space,” Maj. Gen. Paul Tedman, new chief of Britain’s Space Command, told the the 7th Annual Prague Space Security Conference sponsored by the Prague Security Studies Institute on June 17.

And on June 25, ACT announced that NATO’s ruling North Atlantic Council had officially approved the establishment of a new Space Branch within the command, to be led by a senior French Air and Space Force Officer. ACT is responsible for alliance strategic development across all domains.

The ACT Space Branch had been set up last year on a trial basis, due in large part to the fact that “the national demand” for space capabilities “continues to skyrocket,” the announcement explained.

“The establishment of the Space Branch will also facilitate better collaboration with Allied Command Operations, particularly with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe Space Branch, and the Combined Forces Space Component Command located in Ramstein, Germany. Both are currently in a Trial structure format. This cooperation is crucial as the NATO Space Operations Centre continues to grow and exert a more significant impact on space operations across the Alliance,” it added.

NATO Space Evolution

Collective alliance involvement in military space — for many years seen as the purview of individual nations — has picked up speed pretty much every year since NATO agreed to its first space policy in 2019. Due in part to the political sensitivities in a number of European countries surrounding military space activities, that policy wasn’t made public until January 2022. Further, the allies felt the need for the policy to stress that NATO had no interest in developing its own collective space capabilities or in becoming an “autonomous space actor;” instead pledging them to “voluntarily” share data and cooperate.

Flash forward to today. A March 21 NATO fact sheet on space activities boasts that: allies are developing a Strategic Space Situational Awareness System (3SAS) at NATO Headquarters; a group of 19 allies led by Luxembourg are collaborating to create a virtual remote sensing constellation called Aquila under the “Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APS) initiative to beef up collective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; and NATO is investing over €1 billion ($1.07 billion) in procuring satellite communications services for the period of 2020-2034.

“Space is essential to the Alliance’s deterrence and defence. Space underpins NATO’s ability to navigate and track forces, to have robust communications, to detect missile launches and to ensure effective command and control. More than half of active satellites orbiting the Earth belong to NATO members or companies based on their territory,” the fact sheet notes.

NATO’s European Space Players Step Up

NATO members France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom are Europe’s biggest military space powers, although tiny Luxembourg has made it a mission to punch above its weight primarily through strategic investment. And each of the big four is in the midst of further building up their capabilities and forces, in the wake of increased concerns about threats to space activities from Russia and China.

France traditionally has been Europe’s strongest space actor in all sectors. France’s Space Command was established in 2019 underneath the French Air Force; the two subsequently were realigned under the French Air and Space Forces in 2020.

Maj. Gen. Philippe Adam, the head of French Space Command, told the Prague conference that he is still working to get the command up to full strength.

“We are reaching the 400 people in March. The target is around 500 people,” he said.

He explained that unlike in the US structure where force development is the purview of the Space Force and actual military operations that of US Space Command, his command is responsible for both. “We need to do everything at the same time,” he said, which creates some difficulties for such a small organization.

Speaking with Paris-based reporters in May, Adam said one of his key national priorities is improving France’s ground-based space surveillance radar, called GRAVES for Grand Réseau Adapté à la Veillle Spatiale, by adding another radar site. He stressed that an improved GRAVES system would directly contribute to the success of France’s effort to develop “patroller” satellites to detect threatening adversary satellites under a project called Yoda (Yeux en Orbite pour un Démonstrateur Agile), and larger follow-on variants equipped with a laser to attack them.

France also is active in collective NATO efforts. It houses the Space Centre Excellence in Toulouse, which was approved in July 2023 as one of the alliance’s freestanding centers for innovation, and in April sponsored NATO’s first-ever Space Symposium. France’s Ministry of Defense also routinely invites allies to participate in its annual cross-service AsterX space training exercise.

Germany last June put out its first-ever National Security Strategy, which says that space is a “strategic domain” for the armed forces, Maj. Gen. Michael Traut, head of German Space Command told the Prague conference. This was followed last September by a new national Space Strategy that primarily focused on beefing up its commercial industry; and in November the German Defense Ministry issued new policy guidelines that declared the need to protect both the space and cyber domains from increasing threats.

“We need to make provisions in times of tension and war to make sure that cyber and space services are reliably provided,” he said.

The German Space Command, likewise, is “young as an independent command because we stood up actually formally … on the first of April 2023,” Traut said. Since then, he said, the command has created a J2 directorate for intelligence and a J5 directorate for strategy and planning.

He noted that a first order of priority for the command is space situational awareness, as a foundational capability for all other missions.

But at the top of the list, Traut said, is figuring out how to convince a skeptical German public (which long has been extremely skittish about the concept of war in space) about the need to protect space assets. “That’s my number one on my actual list: in Germany to make the greater public aware on what space means to them.”

“The UK has made a lot of progress in the last three years since the command was formed, Tedman told the Prague conference. “We’re starting to normalize the command by doing things that other domains have done for years. I think the challenge is we’re trying to do what other commands have done and other domains have done in the last 30 years, in about three years.”

He stressed however that already “success can be measured” citing the fact that UK Space Command will “be launching our first satellite in July.”

That satellite, called Tyche, is a demonstration bird carrying an electro-optical camera for remote sensing built by Surrey Satellite Technology. It is to be launched to low Earth orbit from Vandenberg SFB in California on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Italy doesn’t have a separate space command or a space force, rather military space activities “are managed at the joint level,” Col. Giuseppe Gentile, chief of the Space Policy and Innovation Branch, Space Policy Office, at the Italian Defence General Staff, explained in his remarks in Prague.

Rome issued its first National Space Strategy [PDF] in 2019, he said, which has a keen focus on “space collaboration” — and in particular, he said, Italy’s Ministry of Defense works closely with France and Germany, as well as increasingly with the United States.

Italy’s most recent defense budget plan issued last October includes a program to procure a LEO-based constellation of communications and data relay satellites, and a commercial-off-the-shelf telecommunications satellite in geosynchronous Earth orbit, called SICRAL R1, to replace its SICRAL 1B satellite, according to an Oct. 19, 2023 article in Janes.