In virtual visit to France, NATO Parliamentarians discuss space security, biotech advances and NATO S&T cooperation

04 July 2021

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Through ongoing investment and multilateral engagement, France plays a critical role in the Alliance’s approach to the space domain and in the international regulation of biotechnologies, both of which are essential to the Alliance’s security. That was the clear message delivered to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Science and Technology Committee (STC) during a virtual visit to France on 2 July.

Attended by 12 parliamentarians from seven NATO member states and led by the Chairperson of the STC, Mr Kevan Jones (United Kingdom), the delegation received a comprehensive overview from an array of distinguished French speakers and experts on space and biotechnology.

Major General Michel Friedling, Commander of French Space Command, and Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, Geographer and Director of Research at the CNRS Centre Alexandre Koyré, elaborated on the challenges NATO Allies are facing in space.

In the past ten years, space has emerged as a domain of potential confrontation and conflict for the Alliance, participants were informed. This is due in part to the continuing malicious behaviour of Russia and China, but also due to increasing economic activity by private actors. These developments make the regulation of space assets more difficult while the growing challenge of space debris threatens the physical safety of all assets deployed in space. Implemented in 2019, the French Space Defence Strategy emphasises responsible behaviour as a pragmatic and effective way to ensure the continued security of space, thereby clarifying intentions and avoiding escalation following potential misunderstandings, the delegation was informed. The delegation learned that France has no strategy, nor any intention to develop a strategy for offensive actions in space. France’s priority is to discourage malicious actors in space and to pursue diplomatic efforts that ensure responsible and peaceful activity, speakers stressed.

France initiated the establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Space in Toulouse, a development which NATO leaders welcomed at their recent Brussels Summit. The Centre will be a linchpin for space education, doctrine development and experimentation for NATO space experts.

Parliamentarians also discussed the existing multilateral frameworks governing space. Some members asked about the relevance of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty in the context of recent developments in space. Both French experts, however, concurred that the Treaty’s “major principles are still valid” and that its stabilising effects should not be underestimated.

Possible security risks emanating from the rapid advance of biotechnology were also on the agenda of the visit. Ambassador Yann Hwang, Permanent Representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, noted that it is no surprise that biotechnology and the possible menace of bioweapons is at the forefront of thinking for many parliamentarians today. Much like in the domain of space, he emphasised that, “We can see that norms allow us to accomplish a great deal. The question, then, is to operationalise these frameworks, which is not currently the case.” Ambassador Hwang thus called for greater attention regarding the potentially positive role played by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in ensuring that biotechnologies are used for peaceful purposes only.

Elisande Nexon, Senior Research Fellow at the French Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), noted that the international community has witnessed how biotechnology can help address healthcare issues in the context of COVID-19. Similar impacts, she argued, could be seen in areas like agriculture, environmental industries, or the materials industry. Still, she said, the stakes are high, as there are a variety of risks inherent in biotechnology, including laboratory leaks, environmental spill over effects and ethical issues.

Both experts cautioned against a blanket approach to the banning of certain biotechnologies or the prevention of their development as a whole. An appropriate approach would instead be to focus on legislation and multilateral cooperation**,** the Committee was informed. Ms Nexon emphasised that “we need to promote international cooperation and information exchange,” adding that difficulties exist because, “there are significant differences between states – whether national interests, regulations, views on [human rights], and financial resources.” The promotion of information exchanges, emphasis on improved transparency, and a general effort to raise awareness with the public of potential risks inherent in biotechnologies are all valid lines of action, she argued. To that end, NATO Allies should “train, regulate and encourage scientists to adhere to these approaches, and to evaluate risks and threats regularly with academia and scientists. It is important that we are able to recognise whether [an incident related to biotechnology] was accidental or deliberate, and whether we can attribute responsibility to a human actor […].”

Finally, the delegation also learned of the importance of cooperation in the field of S&T, and in particular the role of the Collaboration Support Office (CSO) in NATO's Science and Technology Organisation (STO). John-Mikal STØRDAL, CSO Director, emphasised that “collaborative Science and Technology within NATO has enabled the Alliance to produce the most advanced and efficient defence systems the world has ever seen.” He warned that there is a real possibility that NATO could lose its technological edge but stressed that the work of the Assembly’s Science and Technology Committee has had a positive impact in raising awareness of this possibility, citing the 2018 NATO PA report, Maintaining the Edge and Enhancing Alliance Agility. “Today, emerging and disruptive technologies are firmly placed on the agenda for NATO 2030, as was clear in the last Summit Communique,” he said.

The CSO Director also identified three areas where NATO Parliamentarians can continue to make a difference: “We are at the threshold of technological change beyond anything we’ve experienced before”, he said, “and NATO Allies need increased investment in S&T related R&D (not only military R&D) at the national level to stay ahead of this change.” He also called upon NATO to engage with national representatives on the NATO Science and Technology Board to discuss how to gain the most from the Science and Technology Organisation and the Collaborative Programme of Work. Third, he stressed how important it is “to inspire and motivate our young people to study STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – disciplines. This is the only way to have the highest quality scientists and engineers available to the NATO STO Network and to improve the age and gender balance in these fields.

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