ROME — Italy must do more to defend its satellites as space becomes a recognized realm for military operations, Italy’s defense chief of staff has said.

“It will be essential to render the protection of satellites more robust,” said Adm. Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, who warned of an “increase in threats” and “a risk for security” in space.

Cavo Dragone was speaking at a Feb. 23 seminar in Rome marking the launch of a new report by an Italian think tank, which urged the Italian government to beef up space defense and keep orbital paths clear of debris.

Cavo Dragone said the Italian military “has long recognized space as an operational domain in which we must protect a delicate ecosystem and protect services and infrastructure.”

The ability to spot threats was “essential,” he explained, and it would otherwise be difficult to distinguish between “irresponsible” and “aggressive” behavior in space and to identify actors who provoke incidents in orbit.

Addressing the seminar, Italian Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini said space had become “more strategic, more competitive, more congested and contested.”

Cavo Dragone’s appeal came after Italy launched its sixth Cosmo-SkyMed satellite in January, adding to a constellation that offers space radar surveillance capabilities for both military and civil use.

In the report launched at the seminar, the Rome-based Institute for International Affairs warned: “An attack against a military satellite by itself should be considered in the same category as an attack against a military ship sailing in international waters, and be subject to a similar [Ministry of Defence] response.”

Such an attack would also need a “political decision on whether or not [to] invoke the NATO article 5 on collective defence,” the report added.

“The NATO recognition of space as operational domain implies that allies’ armed forces are going to operate in this environment in principle as in other domains, in terms of deterrence and defence as well as broadly speaking of military operations,” the report stated.

Similarly, an attack on an Italian or allied nation’s civil satellite could be compared to an attack on an Italian merchant ship, which could also require a military response, the report read.

Beefing up defense capabilities in space meant equipping satellites with sensors to detect an electronic or physical attack, the report argued. That would “discourage the conduct of irresponsible or offensive behaviour in orbit by making their attribution more rapid, accurate and crystal-clear,” the report added.

With the number of satellites expected to leap from 4,500 today to 50,000 by 2030, the report noted, Italy also needs new legislation to spur “de-orbiting” — the removal of redundant satellites to avoid congestion in orbit and the risk of collisions.

Apart from its Cosmo-SkyMed constellation, Italy has launched Sicral military communications satellites and shares the Athena-Fidus military communications satellite with France.

Industrial ties with France have also been tight since the pooling of satellite-building capabilities in 2005 through the Thales Alenia Space business.

Italy also manages the OptSat-3000 optical surveillance satellite launched with Israel Aerospace Industries as part of an industrial compensation deal for Israel’s purchase of M-346 jet trainers.

The report called for legislation designed to enhance the military protection of satellites to augment Italian legislation introduced in 2018, which handed the Prime Minister’s Office the responsibility for coordinating space policy, with support from its military adviser.

The Italian Defence General Staff in 2019 set up a General Space Office and a Space Operations Command in 2020; together, they are tasked with planning, policy, procurement, launches and retirements of satellites.

What remains lacking is funding, the report said, noting that military space research budgets for 2021-2023 only stretched to €100 million (U.S. $111 million). In comparison, the report noted, the British Defence Ministry this year released a Defence Space Strategy that called for £1.4 billion (U.S. $1.9 billion) over 10 years to space investment — or £420 million in a three-year period.

“One of the main reasons is that space is by default a joint interest of all armed forces but it is not the core business of any single service, therefore it suffers in comparison with the respective priorities of army, navy and air force,” the report stated.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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