Opinion & Analysis

ESA’s ‘Security Turn’: opportunities and challenges for European defence

In recent years, the European Space Agency (ESA) has seen a gradual expansion in its mission to now include ensuring space security. Such a change may have been favoured by the evolving needs of the EU, which is one of the ESA’s main partners and has become more and more concerned with the security and resilience of its space assets, as well as increasingly relevant in the ESA’s funding. Accordingly, ESA might be transitioning from a purely civilian and scientific organization to an institution entrusted with developing the security of space facilities against natural hazards and collision with man-made objects, both deliberate and unintended. While ESA’s new ‘defence for space’ approach has surely increased the institution’s military relevance, it is still unclear whether such a transition will benefit or impede European defence. On the one hand, profiting from the consolidated technical expertise of the ESA could afford European the armed forces the opportunity to increasingly rely on high-quality space facilities. On the other hand, institutional overlap and ensuring coordination with other EU bodies could present serious challenges, ones which could eventually hamper the efficacy of European space assets for military activities.

This paper aims to assess the meaning of ESA’s ‘security turn’ and its implications for European defence. Firstly, the historical evolution of the EU-ESA partnership will illustrate how the EU might have pushed towards the ESA’s increased commitment to space assets’ safety and security, backed by a reinterpretation of ESA’s mission as delineated in its founding convention.

Secondly, it will be considered how the ESA itself has reshaped its role by embracing new concepts, such as the ‘defence for space’ one, and by reconceptualizing old notions, for example ‘safety and security applications’. Moreover, an overview of the ESA’s security-centred partnerships and projects will show the practical effect of such an abstract work. To conclude, the opportunities and challenges for European defence of the ESA’s engagement in space security will be presented.

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About the author:

Matilde Sacchi works at Finabel’s research department.

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