Space has become an increasingly important domain within regional security cooperation initiatives. While the Nordic countries have embraced the prospect of a joint satellite system as an important tool in advancing common interests, the Visegrad nations have yet to recognize the immense potential of collaboration in outer space. Central European leaders presently face a challenge of focusing too much on the challenges and risks associated with the declining defense budgets, while overlooking the opportunities that might offer unique investments with long-lasting benefits.
Whereas the widening gap between financial resources and desired military capabilities encourages NATO member states to cooperate on a wide range of projects, space has remained largely unnoticed by small and medium-sized countries. Conversely, the United States has identified outer space as an increasingly significant and contested domain in military affairs.
The era in which only a handful of great powers possessed capabilities enabled by space platforms is long over. Today, nine spacefaring nations as well as the community of states gathered in the European Space Agency (ESA) can launch satellites into orbit. In addition, more than 60 nations have assets in space. In fact, orbiting satellites offer a wide scale of utilities including communications, navigation, as well as military and intelligence applications.
The 2009 Stoltenberg report, which paved the way for signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO), recognized the importance of outer space within regional security cooperation initiatives and proposed the establishment of a joint Nordic polar orbit satellite system that could provide communications and real-time images of the areas of concern. The idea draws on political, economic, defense, and security interests. The Nordic countries expect that the space system will in the long-term result in considerable savings, since the states currently purchase required satellite services from foreign providers. Furthermore, the system will have an added value in terms of regional defense and security as it will provide Nordic military commanders with their own valuable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.
The V4 countries, similarly to the Nordic nations, also share common historical and cultural experiences that along with the geographical integrity, create an indispensable precondition for closer security cooperation. While most of the Nordic countries (except for Iceland) are members of ESA, most of the Visegrad nations, with the exception of the Czech Republic, have yet to join the European space club.
Whereas the Czech Republic has been spearheading space endeavors within Central Europe, Poland and Hungary are bound to become members of the agency in the near future. In January 2011, Poland decided to increase its financial contribution to the Plan for European Cooperating State (PECS), which was received by ESA as a sign of positive engagement. A few months later, Poland entered into accession negotiations with the agency. While Poland might become a member of ESA as early as this year, Hungary expects to join the agency in a few years. In turn, Slovakia, which is currently in the first phase of the three-stage ESA admission process, awaits to sign the decisive PECS plan that would put the country on a 5-year road to join ESA.
However, one should note that the ESA membership does not constitute a prerequisite for V4 cooperation in space, but it might prospectively facilitate its further development. Interestingly, some of the countries already share a history of such collaboration. From 1978 to 1992, the Czechs and Slovaks worked together on a series of magnetospheric and ionospheric satellites called MAGION that were launched in orbit by Russian space launch vehicles.
Current technological trends convincingly indicate that the dominance in air and space will be crucial to prevailing in future conflicts. Central European leaders should overcome the sense of uncertainty rising from the economic austerity and declining defense budgets and consider cooperation in space domain as an opportune investment with enduring benefits. By setting up a high-level expert group, the V4 countries would determine whether to invest into a joint communications satellite launched in geosynchronous orbit or a series of remote sensing satellites placed in polar orbit.
Not only would such space systems save money that are being spent on the purchases of commercial products, but the Visegrad group would also significantly shore up its defense and security capabilities. Moreover, a close cooperation in the field of space would boost the economic growth in the V4 countries, as the space industry has been widely recognized for its positive influence on the competitiveness and innovativeness of economy. Finally, the Visegrad group might become a more relevant player within NATO as it could prospectively contribute its own space-enabled capabilities to Alliance’s efforts such as the Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) system and the Joint Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) concept.
Peter Pindják serves as Chief State Counselor at the Bilateral Affairs Section of the Ministry of Defense of the Slovak Republic. He received an M.P.I.A. from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Dominik P. Jankowski serves as Expert Analyst at the National Security Bureau of the Republic of Poland and is pursuing a doctorate at the Warsaw School of Economics. Both authors are members of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.
The authors’ arguments are their own and do neither represent the views or opinions of the Slovak Ministry of Defense nor the National Security Bureau of the Republic of Poland.