Germany’s Reluctant Approach to Space Security Policy
On Oct. 26, 2022, eight months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reading the news felt something like watching a Star Wars movie. At the United Nations, Russia, represented by a senior Russian foreign ministry official, was threatening to attack commercial Western satellites. Providing intelligence or communication services to the Ukrainian army, the official said, could make any satellite a “legitimate target for retaliation.” Of all of Ukraine’s Western allies, the United States was the only country to respond, saying that any damage to U.S. space infrastructure would result in an “appropriate response.” Moscow’s focus on the commercial space sector, no matter how surreal, is no surprise — commercial providers such as Starlink have played an enormous role in the conflict.
Since the 1950s, space has been increasingly important to militaries around the world. This is particularly true now, as the rapid development of space technology has allowed both public and private actors access to the cosmos. The war in Ukraine has shown how satellite internet can connect armed forces and help bring information from sensors, such as drones, to shooters, like heavy artillery, much quicker than before.
Despite these trends, the German government has maintained a passive approach to space and does not consider it a security priority. Germans take for granted free access to space and the uninhibited use of space systems, including infrastructure and vehicles, such as satellites, that collaborate to perform tasks such as communication, provision, and Earth observation. These systems can be civil, scientific, or military and always entail related ground-control services. Given that both private companies and Germany’s adversaries have made space a security priority, the German government should develop its own space security strategy, build a European coalition in space, and consider the development of offensive capacities in the cosmos.
Space Is the Antechamber to Connectivity on Earth
Since the early 1960s, space has been a breeding ground for military activities. This began during the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union used spy satellites for intelligence activities. In recent years, the number of players and the number of objects in the atmosphere have both risen. Today, several thousand satellites orbit the Earth, with estimates varying from 4,500 to 7,400. This could rise to 70,000 within the next 10 years. The private sector has entered the space age with companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin that provide services, such as satellite launches, that until recently could only be provided by nation-states. This increasing number of actors and advances in space technology mean that space is more critical than ever to security policy.
Satellites are also getting smaller and launches are getting cheaper — this has made it easier than ever to get objects into orbit. Companies like Amazon and OneWeb, as well as governments around the world, are planning to create so-called mega-constellations of satellites. The largest of these is the Starlink constellation run by SpaceX, which already consists of more than 3,250 small satellites, comprising roughly half of all satellites in space.
This proliferation has led to an increase in both space traffic and reliance on satellites’ services. Satellites comprise critical infrastructure necessary for the provision of numerous digital services on Earth, both for civilian and military applications. These critical provisions range from simple banking transactions to the provision of the internet in remote places such as cruise ships. The satellites that provide these capabilities are potential targets for military aggression and are increasingly threatened by the risk of collision with other satellites and objects.
Conflicts on Earth are now carried on in space, too. In Ukraine, for instance, where Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX, provided Starlink services, satellites are vital for coordination and communication among soldiers. The advanced industrialized armies that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan had trouble getting relevant information to where it was needed — Ukraine has no such problems now. The Starlink system is also surprisingly resilient and resistant against everything from jamming to cyberattacks. However, the satellites themselves remain vulnerable. On the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hackers attacked a communication satellite from American provider Viasat. The repercussions were felt in Germany when almost six thousand wind turbines were no longer accessible over the internet.
Competitive, Congested, and Contested
Free access to space today is endangered by the renewed development of military counter-space capabilities. These capabilities are primarily intended to prevent other nations’ access to space while ensuring one’s own control. The development of counter-space capabilities might sound like something out of a science fiction film, but it is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it represents a return to the mid-Cold War paradigm. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted over 50 anti-satellite tests in space. These decreased after the end of the Cold War — about 20 tests were recorded from the early 2000s until 2021. What has changed since then is the rising number of actors in space and the technological evolution of counter-space capabilities. Launches have also become cheaper, which has made space far more accessible but also less safe if some players have malicious intent.
Attacks in space come in several forms, each of which have unique risks and advantages. A kinetic physical attack is a direct hit on a target (a satellite or a ground station) by a missile launched from the Earth or another satellite. While direct, these are easily trackable, and the impacts create space debris. This was demonstrated most recently by Russia’s anti-satellite test on one of its own satellites in November 2021.
A non-kinetic physical offensive, such as dazzling — blinding a satellite’s sensors so that for the duration of the attack it cannot take any photos — deteriorates the physical functions of a satellite without destroying it, using high-powered lasers or microwaves. These attacks are often launched to make a satellite physically inoperable, either temporarily or permanently, while leaving very little trace of the attacker’s identity. However, the success rate of these attacks is difficult to assess. The same holds for electromagnetic attacks, when the transmission of data through radio frequency signals is temporarily disabled. Finally, counter-space cyber-attacks target the data provided or used by a satellite or a ground station.
Based on an annual report by the Secure World Foundation in 2022, many countries are investing in the research and development of offensive and defensive counter-space capabilities. The states making these investments claim that they only plan to use these capabilities for defensive purposes in a peaceful and sustainable way, but these technologies can be misused to damage space systems as well. As a result, the line between offensive and defensive capabilities is blurred. Anyone who possesses these weapons for defense purposes can harm others.
Four countries so far have managed to develop advanced counter-space capabilities: the United States, Russia, China, and India. The United States has always been a key player in space and is trying to maintain its supremacy against Russia and China, who are also trying to achieve superiority. India has begun to develop a military space arsenal, including offensive capabilities, though it claims to be against the militarization of space.
France, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom only have basic space capabilities, but some of them seem willing to move toward the development of offensive assets that can target other satellites or ground systems. By contrast, Germany has adopted a more preventive military strategy that opposes the development and use of offensive capabilities.
Current German Thinking on Space
Despite these developments, space is very rarely examined from a security policy perspective in German public political discourse. It is neither seen as a military concern nor as something that has much to do with warfare. The current government’s coalition agreement does stress Germany’s intention to strengthen national space programs and the European Space Agency in order to promote and guarantee the sustainable use of space. However, it makes no reference to security policy. Germany has a Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy, but its functions are clearly focused on the civilian side of space policy, areas such as climate change, sustainability, and research and education.
In a recent analysis, Dr. Christian Mölling, deputy director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said, “Thus far, the Federal Government shows little commitment to taking space policy beyond the current infrastructure.” This is problematic. Germany’s space infrastructure was originally created in a time when there was unhindered access to space, but this no longer holds true.
Currently, the German armed forces have the capacity for global imaging reconnaissance and satellite communication and are investigating the possibility of developing satellite-based early warning systems. However, there has been no work toward developing defense systems for satellites. Instead, the German military relies heavily on American assets to gain space situational awareness. Since the German government rejects the use of debris-generating systems in space, it is unlikely that its armed forces will develop kinetic physical anti-satellite weapons, such as missiles, in the foreseeable future. In fact, they currently rule out any offensive means in space, even those that would not result in more debris.
The reasons for Germany’s reluctant approach are complex. Germany has a generally careful strategic culture in which security policy does not win elections. To this day, Germany’s politicians have trouble talking about the use of military force from a strategic, national interest-dominated standpoint — ideological arguments abound. Military might, for example, is instead often framed as enabling economic development.
This reluctant strategic culture has translated into space. The — to German eyes — martial American approach to space in the 1980s, particularly President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (also dubbed Star Wars), made it difficult to sell space security policy to an already hesitant German population. The American initiative was a space-based missile defense program and aimed to make the doctrine of mutually assured destruction — and by extension nuclear weapons — obsolete. Many European allies, led by France, feared a new arms race and had concerns about the technological feasibility of the system and its efficiency in the European area.
Germany was divided. While the government led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl supported the American project, expecting it to provide access to innovative technology, the Social Democratic Party , a left-leaning party not known for an active and forward-looking security policy, was against it. More than 350 scientists wrote an open letter to Kohl opposing participation because stationing weapons systems in space would destroy any hope for disarmament. Germany’s current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, joined the Social Democrat Party in 1975. He is currently criticized for not stepping up enough to the changes in Europe’s security brought about by the war in Ukraine.
Germany has not always been this passive. The previous government, a grand coalition of the Christian Democratic Union, its sister party, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, and the Social Democratic Party, took various measures to highlight the importance of space for the German army. In 2017, for instance, the Ministry of Defense published a strategy paper on space, stressing, among other things, the need to develop further capabilities necessary for the planning and command of military missions abroad. In 2021, the German armed forces even created their own space command, run by the German air force. The German Space Situational Awareness Center, which aims to provide the armed forces with an understanding of what is happening in space, was integrated into the space command, and a project was initiated to update its hardware and software. However, there are currently no ambitious plans to build on these initiatives because of a lack of political will by the current government.
How Can Germany Take Space More Seriously?
The German government should, instead, consider space from a security-policy perspective. Germany is currently developing its own national security strategy, the first of its kind for the Federal Republic. Originally planned to be unveiled at the Munich Security Conference in February, its release was delayed, and it has not yet been published. Any strategy should consider the fact that space, especially lower earth orbit (below an altitude of 1,200 miles), has become more crowded and congested of late and that fact should inform Germany’s strategic interests. Critically, the German government should consider to what extent it wants to depend on others, including for the launch of satellites — the last satellite owned and operated by the German army was brought into orbit by SpaceX. Ideally, a more detailed space security strategy would follow this broader security strategy, which would make it easier to allocate resources.
Strategy, however, is moot without subsequent action. Once Germany has defined its goals, there are two things that need to be done. First, Germany should spearhead the formation of a European coalition to collectively develop space assets, gain independence, and ensure Europe’s access to space. Germany does not have the same means that the United States or China has — it needs its European allies for grander ambitions, such as a European mega-constellation of small satellites. The window for building such a network, however, is closing — players such as Starlink are rapidly securing usage rights for the limited number of radio frequencies available for signal transmission in space for their own mega-constellations.
The government should also build a national coalition between the government, academia, and the private sector, including both start-ups as well as established industry players, with the aim of reducing dependence on foreign space companies. This would nurture innovation in Germany and Europe and advance the country’s strategic interests. There is a vibrant space tech scene in Germany and many start-ups have developed innovative and intelligent solutions to developments in space, such as a means of traveling into space without a rocket or new approaches to space traffic management. A lack of funding and interest in these projects, however, could result in a brain drain. German universities are also home to renowned engineers and researchers who are developing important solutions for problems in space. The government needs to reverse its traditionally reluctant approach to collaboration with the private sector and initiate ties with players in both the private sector and academia to collectively develop space infrastructure.
Finally, the German military also needs to invest more in analyzing and developing its own offensive capabilities. Currently, the government says that it does not want any offensive capabilities in space. However, there is a twofold rationale for Germany to reconsider. First, these capabilities can act as a deterrent against attempts to interfere with Germany’s space-based infrastructure. Second, Germany can hardly maintain its stated aspiration of becoming “the best equipped armed force in Europe” without protecting itself in space. Instead of targeting satellites, offensive capabilities could target ground-based control systems for adversarial space infrastructure. In cyber security, it’s accepted that the lines between defense and offense are blurred — the same goes for space.
There are also several technologies that Berlin should consider investing in that would make for more resilient satellites. One is laser communication, which could replace radio waves. This would allow more data to be transmitted in less time. There are also satellites that are able to observe their near environment, which could help to avoid collisions in increasingly crowded orbits. The government could also consider investing in sensors that screen the Earth for missile launches. Such early-warning capabilities would be a contribution to both German and broader European security.
There is no time to lose. SpaceX is launching several mini-satellites regularly. Already, the company possesses the power to intervene in an ongoing conflict: If Elon Musk decided to cut his services, the Ukrainian army would lose a serious warfighting advantage. The German government is uniquely positioned to take the lead in space security policy in Europe, but it should start being ambitious now.
Dr. Carolin Busch is a senior manager and Lorène Slous is a junior consultant at Eviden, an Atos business and multinational company that focuses on high-tech, cloud, big data, and cyber security services. Carolin holds a Ph.D. from the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich and specializes in military capability development. Lorène has studied and worked in both Paris and Berlin and is currently working in IT projects that deal with space situational awareness.
Image: German Space Agency