The year 2022 will be remembered for many things: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the year that both NATO and the EU published their security strategies. For the European Union, the Strategic Compass represents the willingness of 27 countries with different strategic cultures to better coordinate, invest in capacity building, and partner with international organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations knowing that a secure environment is crucial for European security.
The compass falls short in security
Despite the success of the Strategic Compass in getting 27 countries to agree on concrete actions to improve European security, it would have benefitted from a deeper reflection on cyberspace and outer space instead of having both domains considered as “add-ons” to the action plans for the four main axes: act, secure, invest, and partner. Three elements in particular deserved deeper inspection in the document.
The first is cyber defence. One of the lessons of the Ukrainian conflict is that one can never be sufficiently prepared for cyberattacks. After the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine witnessed what is considered as the first successful cyberattack on critical infrastructure. The target: the power grid. Though network activity recovered quickly, the attack rang alarm bells both in the Ukrainian cyber defence system and in Europe. In 2022, as tanks rolled into Ukrainian territory, the target became satellite communications, left uncovered by European cybersecurity legislation and essential to modern conflict.
The underlying proposal of the Strategic Compass is to strengthen the instruments that are already in place, such as the Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox, and create new ones in the area of hybrid threats, for example. In addition to this, the Compass announces the creation of an EU Cyber Defence Policy. The idea is ambitious but thorny. How states fare in cyberspace is information that they hold very dearly, especially when it comes to issues such as cyber espionage and the development of cyberweapons. Scandals such as Denmark’s spying on the phone of former German Chancellor Merkel demonstrate that the policy risks becoming a declaration of intention rather than a roadmap for the necessary integration of (certain) cyber capabilities. An active cyber defence posture, a higher degree of information sharing to ensure a faster response to cyberattacks, and promoting cyber norms will be key to cyber resilience.
Space policy and disruptive technologies missing
The second element is space. The European Union is still a junior actor when it comes to the strategic use of space. In the years preceding the publication of the Compass, there were interesting developments, such as the creation of the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), which has recently turned one year old, and the announcement of a framework for space traffic management, due to be published at the end of 2022. Still, the Compass barely mentions the risks of growing space congestion and increased debris, the weaponisation of space, or the space capacity build-up of actors like China.
Thirdly, emerging and disruptive technologies. Mentions of new technologies are scattered in the text and always tagged on to a bigger idea (such as boosting European capacities in cyberspace). In addition to this, the Compass misses the opportunity to establish a list of strategic technologies, and to do so in line with the efforts of EU digital policy. Artificial intelligence and biotechnologies are identified in the Compass as examples, in the very brief mentions made of new technologies, but that is the end of it.
Organisations such as NATO, in which many member states participate, have already put forward similar documents. The Alliance recognises artificial intelligence, data, autonomy, quantum technologies, space technologies, hypersonics, biotechnology and human enhancement technologies, as well as novel materials, as strategic areas that will be fundamental to maintaining NATO’s technological edge. The list in itself is confusing: many areas in it overlap and it is hard to determine why they are there. It is nevertheless an important contribution to assessing the current stage of development and prioritising investments.
As in the case of cyber, consensus on which technologies are strategic for European defence could have led to a set of actions to strengthen present instruments and create new ones where necessary. For example, had quantum technologies been listed (and not only quantum computing, which are mentioned three times), the Compass could have stimulated EU efforts to create a space-based communication system using quantum communication technologies, and helped reflect on how that constellation could enhance the efforts of ongoing space projects (e.g. GOVSATCOM) and improve Europe’s readiness in future conflicts.
A step forward, nonetheless
Despite ambiguity in these three areas (cyber, space, and emerging technologies), the Strategic Compass should be read as a sign of progress among the EU27.
The geopolitical background and the increasing complexity of the threat landscape, including in cyberspace, has made the time ripe for a document of this kind. There are many things to watch for on the horizon: the upcoming EU Cyber Defence policy, advancements in space defence, and how successful the newly established Defence Innovation Hub will be.
The foundation stone, though a bit chipped, could be laid in 2022. And one thing is clear: as militaries become more integrated into the digital domain it will be cyber, space, and emerging technologies that will determine Europe’s might in the future.