Space: Geopolitics, Economy and Defence

(To Renato Scarfi)

On October 4, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, we began to look at space with a new eye. What had hitherto been imagined as the undisputed realm of the divine suddenly became more human. The terrestrials, for terrestrial purposes, had started a competition that was not only scientific but also (or above all?) geopolitical and economic.

A race that on April 12, 1961 saw the first manned orbital flight whose protagonist, the Russian Yurij Gagarin, moved the pole of the record a little further. This brought into space the heated rivalry that was giving rise to the Cold War on Earth. The US response came on July 21, 1969, when a former US Navy pilot, Neil Alden Armstrong, took his first steps on the moon. It was, as the protagonist of that epic event said, about “…one small step for man but one giant leap for humanity…”. For the first time a human had arrived on another celestial body.

But history teaches us that, beyond scientific curiosity, exploration and colonization have always been accompanied by militarization and economic exploitation of the conquered territories. And the new extra-atmospheric frontier does not escape this rule.

The Moon, for example, is forcefully returning to the attention of insiders not only for its real or presumed natural resources and raw materials, but also as fundamental element for the control of our planet and springboard towards the cosmos. The competition to ensure the dominion of space has therefore restarted, emphasizing its scientific value but also its economic, geopolitical and security implications.

Economic implications

Space technologies, while being inherently dual-use, are closely related to the defense industry. Space, therefore, is not only relevant from a security and geopolitical point of view, but also has a growing and significant economic importance. France and Germany have understood this well, with the former making money economically and politically with the launch base of Kourou, in French Guiana, made available for the activities of ESA, whose headquarters are in Paris, and the depending on who has acquired bargaining power over the matter with l'European Space Operations Center (ESOC) of Darmstadt, from which it monitors and controls the European satellites in orbit.

To underline the economic opportunities related to space, the figures associated with the next European space activities, as identified by the, are clarifying Council Meeting at Ministerial Level (MC22) ofEuropean Space Agency (ESA), held in Paris on 22 and 23 November 2022. The total funds available for ESA activities for the next five years are equal to USD 16,9 billion, and will be divided as follows:

  • 3,19 billion for the scientific program (equal to 19% of the total);

  • 2,8 billion for space transport (17%);

  • 2,7 billion for Earth observation (16%);

  • $2,7 billion for human and robotic exploration (16%);

  • 1,9 billion for telecommunications and integrated applications (11%);

  • 1,6 billion for basic activities (10%);

  • 731 million for space security (4%);

  • 542 million for technology (3%);

  • 351 million for navigation (2%);

  • 118 million for marketing (1%);

  • 237 million for PRODEX, the PROgramme de Développement d'Expériences scientifiques (1%).

Today the geography of space increasingly resembles an extension of that of the earth, subtracting romanticism from the cosmos, but allowing it to catalyze enormous funding, essential for exploration. It has always been like this, knowledge increases if it has enough funds to finance research and exploration. But it's not money thrown away. In fact, we need to understand that investing in space also means improving our life on Earth. Experiences in microgravity conditions, for example, have led to innovations in the medical field such as treatments for osteoporosis or prostheses for the disabled, but also innovations that have improved daily life, such as protection against UV rays and the “memory foam”, created by NASA in the 70s “…to cushion take-off and to support astronauts during space travel…”i.

In this context, the technological and economic opportunities offered to Italy by space issues in general and by space autonomy in particular should be underlined. The topic is very important both from an industrial point of view and from the point of view of the projection of our country's international image which, ultimately, means greater contractual power on the market (read the article "Space, the new frontier").

Qualified participation in multinational initiatives or, better, direct access to space by our country would have undoubted strategic and geopolitical value on the international scene and would allow series of direct and indirect repercussions for companies in the sector and for the territories to which they belong. Direct impacts for the sector involved, for example, in the construction of launchers and indirect impacts for the supply chain that creates space infrastructures (upstream) and the operations connected to the launch.

The national supply chain, as is known, thanks to the skills developed over the years is able to develop and build all the main components of the space sector which include launchers, the construction of complete and related satellites payloads, the management of satellites in orbit and the provision of related services (downstream). Companies involved in the construction of carriers will therefore be able to find an impetus to their marketing activities by participating in important multilateral initiatives by providing a full service at competitive prices.

Also not to be overlooked is the impact on companies that are already implementing i dispenser for the multiple launch of small satellites which, with theadvent of dozens of new constellations (more than 150 are funded worldwide with the forecast of more than 37.000 satellites to be launched), constitute the main trends of the future. Someone startups are also specializing in the sale of launch services, reselling them, above all to customers who have small volumes (such as scientific bodies and universities, or other startups industry), joint launch opportunities on international carriers. For them too, the availability of a possible autonomous Italian system could increase the offer and broaden the customer portfolio.

For satellite manufacturers, this opportunity will constitute the availability of a greater offer of launch services which, promising to take place from the national territory, it will also simplify export procedures and hopefully a reduction in the cost of launch services.

To understand what is at stake, just think, for example, that the Italian earth observation constellation "IRIDE", financed with funds from the PNRR, in the absence of a suitable and autonomous national launch platform, it will have to be launched from abroad bringing economic resources to the host countries (specifically to France, which manages the Kourou base in Guyana). The first contracts between ESA and the Argotec and OHB Italia industries, for the development of two components of the "IRIDE" constellation, were signed last December 3, 2022 at the Rome Fair, during the annual event called New Space Economy European Expoforum.

Also not to be forgotten is the fallout for companies that deal with command and control operations during the launch and deployment phases commissioning.

Our country is the only EU country, together with France, to have advanced skills throughout the space chain, from launchers, to satellites, to scientific instruments, to operations control, to data processing. Both we and France could therefore play a leading role. However, the well-known French hegemonic will and the attempt to present itself as the sole European interlocutor in the sector mean that Paris is also the main competitors of Italy in this field.

Geopolitical implications

Economic issues are just one of the (strong) reasons that have allowed the resumption of programs related to space exploration and the return of man to our satellite. Once colonized, in fact, exactly as the first navigators did, moving from island to island towards the horizon and the unknown, the Moon will be able to serve as a springboard for navigating in space towards the borders of the solar system and beyond, certainly leading to extending the frontier of knowledge, with important geopolitical implications (read article "Navigate into the unknown").

In this context, the aforementioned MC22 reiterated that among the priorities of the European Area are independent access to orbits and the security of communications and navigation, two very delicate topics that have important geopolitical and security implications.

The positioning of the main powers in the new dimension constitutes, in fact, a power projection that is meant to amplify their role on Earth.

It is no coincidence that even the most technologically advanced Asian countries are working hard to acquire a position in the spatial hierarchy. The news of these days tell us, for example, that even India has reached excellent levels in the sector. This great country, which has succeeded where Russia recently failed (landing on the lunar South Pole), with the lunar landing of the probe Chandrayaan-3 crowned four years of intense efforts to remedy the problems with the previous probe. This makes space, which also sees Japan in the race, with the probe, more "Asian". Slim and China, which will ship next year Chang'e-6 on the moon.

Space exploration however could also be the new field within which experiment with new forms of international cooperation, not poisoned by petty power interests. Already today, in fact, despite the strong and worrying geopolitical instability on our planet, cosmonauts are internationally recognized as ambassadors of all humanity. An apparently symbolic recognition “… which can be explained by the obligation of universal sharing of the results of the missions they are called to carry out…”ii and which allows them to be protected in case the geopolitical situation changes significantly during their stay in space. This was the case, for example, with Russia's war of aggression against the Ukraine. Moscow participates in the program involving the International Space Station (ISS) and depends on its technicians to correct the orbit of our (for now) farthest human outpost in space. Also following the harsh communications from Roscosmos, the fear was that decades of international collaboration had come to an end, with all the consequences of the case, such as the uncontrolled re-entry of the ISS into the atmosphere and its destruction on the ground. Instead, the deterioration of diplomatic relations between Russia and the USA did not affect the level of cooperation at that level, allowing the US astronaut, having reached the end of his period aboard the ISS, to return peacefully and safely with the Soyuz Russian, as previously planned.

Added to the special status of cosmonauts is the Rescue Agreement which, which came into force on December 3, 1968, largely reflects humanitarian law and the discipline of international waters, extended to space " similarity and identity of presuppositions..."iii.

When we admired the TV series "Star Trek", we dreamed that one day humanity could explore the universe. As kids, we believed that scientific exploration was the only engine that propelled us into the unknown. Today we know that scientific exploration is a strong driver, yet it needs huge funding to progress. The additional push comes precisely from economic interests and security needs. Indeed, to progress in knowledge, enormous investments are needed that very few countries can afford on their own. We welcome, therefore, the European political initiatives that allow the Old Continent to navigate in the immense ocean of the universe, making it possible to consolidate old alliances, to form new ones and contribute to the knowledge but also to the security of all of us.

The militarization of space

Awareness of the importance of space for security and defense aspects has grown over time, in parallel with the technological progress achieved in the fields of missiles and electronics. This brings together interests that often do not coincide and are such that even within the United Nations an enormous effort is made to carry forward the discussion within the COPUOS framework (Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space - United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space). The security interests at stake are enormous.

Today space plays, in fact, a fundamental role for the observation of the terrestrial globe, telecommunications, positioning, navigation and timing services or for the interception of electromagnetic signals for activities intelligence.

The militarization of space is, therefore, proceeding through successive levels, the first of which is represented by that Kàrmàn line, conventionally located 100 km above sea level, which marks the border between the Earth's atmosphere and external space. A border that hypersonic missiles use to reach their maximum speed and put the opposing defense systems in difficulty.

Going up in altitude we see an increasingly crowded and competitive low orbit, which is filling up with intelligence gathering, surveillance and telecommunications satellites, making the band around 2.000 km of altitude very similar to rush hour traffic in the center of a megalopolis. In this range of quotas are proving increasingly effective anti-satellite activity such as interference from other satellites and hostile cyber operations managed by dedicated centers on the ground. Furthermore, ground-based satellite destruction capabilities are increasingly being developed, currently used for the destruction of own obsolete or exhausted satellites, but potentially capable of hitting opposing satellites.

And here another problem arises, which potentially affects everyone. The satellites destroyed so far by the Chinese, Russians and Indians have, in fact, produced thousands of fragments which add to the stray wreckage and endanger the other orbiting instruments, which have by now become fundamental in many sectors, and this contributes to making all local traffic still more chaotic. According to some forecasts, this altitude band could one day be so full of satellites and debris as to increase the danger of collisions and uncontrolled re-entry of debris into the atmosphere, as well as representing a real wall, capable of making it extremely difficult (or even impossible) the passage towards higher altitudes and towards space. A sort of self-inflicted incarceration.

A little higher up you arrive in the congested "realm" of the geostationary, or rather where the satellites are accommodated (mainly for intelligence and telecommunications) which keep their position fixed above the equator. At an altitude of 36.000 km this makes it possible to "illuminate" about 50% of the earth's surface. Such a coveted quota that some countries of the equatorial beltiv in 1976 they declared themselves owners of that band of space " equatorial states of the portion of geostationary orbit onto which their territory is projected vertically..."v. It goes without saying that these adventurous claims have not received any international recognition.

We then arrive at the Moon, increasingly the object of desire of the USA, China and today also India, with Russia which would like to return to playing an important role on that chessboard. As mentioned, our satellite represents both a strategic platform to manage the balance (and primacy) on Earth is a natural springboard towards new goals (read Mars, for now).

on your part, NATO has officially recognized space as a fifth strategic-operational domain, alongside those of land, sea, air and cyber. This entails the possibility of activating the collective defense clause, envisaged by article 5 of the Treaty, even in the event of attacks towards, from or inside the space. Since 2019, NATO has also adopted a specification Space policy, whose approach aims to consider the space between the fundamental interests of the Alliance and almost all its members have equipped themselves with military bodies dedicated to managing the sector.

In a nutshell, the future planetary hegemony will also be played out in space, and this leads to a growing militarization beyond the atmosphere, with attempts to appropriate new zones of influence.

The space domain, with the constant growth of its importance for the defense and security sectors, represents a challenge not only for the world order, but also for our national defence, so much so that on 7 July 2022 the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic approved the "Report on the aerospace domain, as a new frontier of geopolitical competition". In this context, the National Security Strategy for Space brings together the guidelines of the Government and the "Strategic Space Document" and is aimed at enhancing the protection capabilities of national infrastructures and at acquiring prevention, deterrence and defense capabilities. ASI, the Italian Space Agency, participates in the sessions of the "Interministerial Committee for Space and Aerospace Policies" (COMINT), provides technical-scientific support both to the Prime Minister (or his ) and to the COMINT.


As we have seen, an important geopolitical game is being played on space issues which will certainly have effects on many fundamental aspects of interest to our country.

Starting from technological and economic aspects. It is now certain that the space sector will be a source of economic growth, if the indispensable technologies are available autonomy to bring satellites into orbit. As stated by Eng. Gian Carlo Poddighe, of the Study Center for Geopolitics and Maritime Strategy (CESMAR), …space is a “market” from which our country should not be absent. Indeed, access to space and the services that derive from it is indispensable and vital not only for growth but also for simple survival. It should not be understood as a privilege, or a sector reserve, but as aopportunity that should be seized and exploited by the "country system" in terms of a careful cost/benefit evaluation, above all "cost and returns for the user"…vi. It is, therefore, essential to play as a team and propose yourself quickly and effectively on this particular "market". Unity is strength. Especially in a country like ours which, despite having the technical-scientific, infrastructural and operational skills, is too often fragmented by narrow individualism and parochialism. Being among the very few countries to have the ability to place satellites in orbit, for example, would also make it possible to attract the attention of those who are interested in space activity for mere economic interest and of all those who are interested in space economy and that they increasingly need data to make their economic and world systems work efficiently. To this would also be added the possibilities of employment for the Italian staff involved in the national project, as a career and / or post-career outlet both at the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and at theEuropean Space Research Organisation (ESRO).

It will be necessary to see if it will be possible to work around this sector build a political consensus that allows Italy to "take the field".

Then there is the question of national prestige. If you are not authoritatively present the our international bargaining power will be drastically reduced, with all the intuitive technological and economic, geopolitical and security implications. As I have repeatedly pointed out in my previous articles, we are going through a historical period characterized by intense competition to secure the raw materials and energy resources essential for national well-being. Politics must therefore not look the other way, hoping that the issue will resolve itself. International relations don't work that way.

Italy is, at the moment, the ESA's largest net contributor, as it spends a considerable amount every year on… not have any substantial economic or political return. Over the next five years, Italy will receive 3,083 billion from ESA (compared to 2,2 billion in 2019 = +40%), which is equivalent to 18,24% of the budget total. However, in the same period, it will spend over 7 billion (mainly paid to France) on space services (launches from Kourou, etc…). A loss-making holding that continues the same unsatisfactory path of dependence followed so far. Italy cannot afford to remain marginalized from this sector and cannot afford, with all the weight of its skills, to pay for services that it could instead be able to offer to others.

Finally, there is the political-military aspect. Foreign policy has a valuable tool that allows it to take on commitments of international significance: the military tool. In fact, it must not be understood "only" as an indispensable element to ensure the democratic independence of our country, but also as a deterrent against anyone who wishes to prevent the attainment of legitimate national interests, wherever they may be.

Taking into account our indisputable economic dependence on the sea, which is indispensable for our well-being and economic growth, and for its natural capacity expeditionary and projection in places far from the national territory, the maritime dimension of the military instrument Italian is particularly sensitive to the opportunities offered by spatial autonomy, as demonstrated by the extraordinary experiences of the 50s and 60s. As mentioned, Italy already has all the technological and professional skills to obtain space autonomy with the exception of its own launch site. This ability could consist of one its own naval platform (military or civilian) which would allow it to launch its own carriers autonomously, in international waters and at any latitude. A strategic and economic capacity which would make our country a point of reference and would allow us to offer other important services in the sector.

In this area our authoritative presence in the space sector could also provide further elements of strength to increase the operational effectiveness of the overall military instrument.

The achievement of space autonomy (from design to construction to launch) would increase the political prestige of our country, would contribute to increasing national security and could also become a strategic "vector" of important economic and technological repercussions, which would generate significant income from the export of services that have now become indispensable and which would bring strategic benefits to the entire high-tech industrial sector, the maritime and telecommunications sectors, but also to the entire Defense sector, avoiding significant outlays abroad for the purchase of the same services.

Similar to what happened in the first half of the XNUMXth century, where the status of colonial power was an essential condition for being able to carry out an active foreign policy, in the near future theSpatial autonomy could become an indispensable requirement for accessing an effective capacity in the field of foreign policy. It is one of the main challenges that we face today, from which in all probability Italy's future geopolitical and economic role will depend.

The aerospace domain is, now, clearly the frontier on which competition is already taking place and will take place in the scientific, technological, economic, geopolitical and military fields at a global level. A competition in which Italy must participate with all the strength of its proven competence and experience in the field. In consideration of the services provided through space infrastructures, this domain will see its role constantly grow in the context of protecting the defense and security of nations.

It is, therefore, up to our politicians to correctly interpret this historical moment and take advantage of this enormous capacity of the country, taking the declarations of intent released during the electoral campaign and translating them into concrete actions, so as to allow all stakeholders Italians to effectively protect national interests and prestige.

i Paula Giorgini, Effects of space research, in Coelum magazine

ii Veronica Moronese, The rescue of astronauts in the scenario of the new space economy, in Coelum magazine

iii ibid

iv Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire).

vSpace oddities, in Limes 12/2021

viSpace, the new frontier. Strategic implications and opportunities for Italy, CESMAR Strategic Notebooks series, n. 5, Rome, 22 November 2022

Image: still from the movie "Space Cowboys"