NATO PA Science and Technology Committee holds first-ever virtual visit to Germany

01 April 2021

NATO is well prepared to respond to WMD attacks, including biological ones, but the rapid developments in life sciences also pose challenges to our societies, a delegation of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) learned during a first-ever virtual visit to Germany on 31 March 2021. Opportunities and challenges around space were also on the agenda of the visit.

The delegation, led by Philippe Michel-Kleisbauer (France), Chairperson of the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Trends and Security, comprised 31 Parliamentarians from 20 NATO member and associate countries. 

Dr Roman Wölfel, Director, Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology and Dr Michèle Gemünden, Senior Researcher, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich provided a comprehensive overview on biodefence and the challenges posed by rapid technological developments in biotechnology.

NATO’s capacity building for biodefence has increased after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, when many NATO countries realised the importance of biodefence capabilities, not only for themselves but also in support of other nations. As a result, NATO member states developed a concept of operations for NATO missions in case of an outbreak of an infectious disease. 

International exchange of knowledge and support is crucial, the delegation learned. There is an intensive network in the biodefence sector between military and civilian national and international institutions. Military medical research capabilities are vital for national biodefence efforts, among other things because they provide continuous horizon scanning of biological threats. However, while collaboration, cooperation, and exchange within NATO on infectious diseases is very good, information exchange between military and civilian research could be improved to reduce redundant efforts.

Life sciences are evolving rapidly, with the help of various other disciplines and enabling technologies. However, while life sciences greatly benefit society, almost every development creates potential for misuse for malign purposes. The dual-use dilemma is at the core of advances in life sciences; educating scientists, and particularly life science students, of the dual use potential of their research is urgently needed. There are also implications for biosecurity, as the risk remains that state actors could aim to get access to biological weapons. This poses a challenge for arms control, specifically the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which lacks a verification regime. The risk of terrorists using biological weapons is lower, as producing pathogens is more challenging than making explosive devices, the delegation heard.

The delegation also received a comprehensive briefing on the opportunities and challenges in space. Andrea Rotter, Head, Division Foreign and Security Policy, Hanns Seidel Foundation, informed the Sub-Committee that a future conflict in space is a serious security risk. Outer space has become indispensable, both for civilian and military applications. “Outer space is an indispensable key enabler for missions and operations”, she said. Moreover, “outer space gained in strategic relevance for states as a meaningful tool of power projection and a crucial domain of future conflict”, she noted. However, while space-based capabilities offer unforeseen advantages in operations and missions, this dependency also represents one of the greatest vulnerabilities of modern militaries.

By adopting a Space Policy and declaring outer space an official operational domain in 2019, NATO has taken important first steps in accounting for the increasing relevance of outer space. However, the Alliance needs to take further decisive action by forging a common understanding of the threats related to outer space. The situation is compounded by the fact that “nearly every member state is a space user but only few are space powers”, according to Ms Rotter. NATO does not have its own space capabilities but is dependent on the willingness of a few capable allies to share theirs, she added. Eventually, NATO should develop an overarching space doctrine, which, for reasons of transparency and deterrence, should be published in the sense of a declaratory policy. 

Furthermore, the Alliance and its members should agree upon and pursue international norms for responsible behaviour in outer space with like-minded governments to prevent a militarization of space. This is important as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is no longer sufficient to address the security issues arising from an increasing geopolitical competition for dominance in space. 

Matthias Wachter, Head of Department, Security, Raw Materials and Space, Federation of German Industries (BDI), highlighted the crucial importance of space-based assets to society, as both national and international economies depend on them. This importance has significantly increased over past years due to commercialization and miniaturization. As a result, “space is also becoming increasingly crowded”, Mr Wachter explained. He noted that of the approximately 5,000 satellites that were launched in the past 60 years, about 3,000 are still functioning today. At the same time, there are plans to launch 10,000 new satellites by 2028. The global space market today accounts for roughly USD 260 billion and is expected to expand ten-fold by 2040, he added. As costs will decrease further, new actors will emerge, which will generate economic advantage but also create challenges from a military and strategic perspective. An increasing number of countries and non-state actors will be able to deploy satellites into orbit, including for military purposes. 

“More actors and more satellites in space increase the potential for misunderstandings, conflict, or accidental collisions”, according to Ms Rotter. Mr Wachter stressed that a solution to which everyone abides is urgently needed. Unfortunately, “everybody is only looking for his own advantages – there are no limitations and no restrictions”, he said. Ms Rotter added that the increasing space activity by more actors is complicating the situation. The space law is outdated, while several sets of different national legislations claim the right to raw material exploitation. “We need international cooperation, including on private activity” Ms Rotter emphasized. The Committee also discussed the risk of space debris, which is an important challenge and must be addressed soon.

Read also