March 27, 2023No Comments

What is the future of Russo-Iranian military relations?

Authors: Margherita Ceserani, Will Kingston-Cox, Ilaria Lorusso, Shahin Modarres

Russia’s war in Ukraine has reached its 398th day and the pro-Russian mercenary Wagner Group is still engaging in the battlefield of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk province, after eight months of combat. They have been assaulting the city since August 2022 and, even though they succeeded on the East frontline, there is still room for a defeat by hands of the Ukrainian resistance backed by three Mi-8 helicopter gunships.

That the war was also being conducted from the air is not news as several sources confirmed the deployment of Iranian drones serving the Russian army, although information was repeatedly denied by Tehran. Moreover, Iran has just confirmed a deal through which it will be in receipt of three SU-35 fighter planes from Russia. This signals two trends: firstly, the Iranian intention to reconstitute its military arsenal and to strengthen its aircraft forces; ultimately, its willingness to develop a weapon market and become a relevant seller, given that the embargo on ballistic missile commerce is expiring in October 2023.

The ties with Moscow have been growing increasingly close. Indeed since the rapprochement in 1989, the interests of the two Eastern powers have often converged, for example, on critiques of Western sanctions and the JCPOA. Today, the presence of Iranian personnel in Ukraine has the double aim of bringing support, training and know-how to Russian soldiers employing Iranian kamikaze drones, observing their functioning, and finding vulnerabilities to be improved. How do the military doctrines of these two countries meet? What should we expect from their bilateral relationship?

Russia’s military doctrine can be defined by its active pursuit of modernization and expansion in Russian military capabilities, such as investing in new weapons systems and conducting full-scale military exercises. The current doctrine–adopted in 2014–enshrines the importance of securing Russia’s borders and Moscow’s interests overseas, as well as the maintenance of the Kremlin’s strategic nuclear deterrence, vis-à-vis the identification of NATO and the United States' expansion of its missile capacity as a significant threat to Russia’s national security. It also contains the concept of ‘strategic deterrence’, which seeks to deter adversaries from attacking Russia under the notion that Moscow is willing to employ ‘preemptive strikes’ wherever it deems necessary

Similarly, the military doctrine of Iran is centred around the principles of defence and deterrence. Iranian military authorities emphasize the importance of perpetuating a strong, unwavering defensive position to deter potential threats and defend Iran’s territorial sovereignty against external belligerence. The doctrine’s latest update, in 2018, identifies the importance of enhancing and refining Iran’s military capabilities–both conventional and asymmetric–to advance the end goal of protecting Iranian territorial integrity.

The convergence of Russian and Iranian military doctrines through security cooperation is not a new phenomenon. For example, both Tehran and Moscow supported Bashar al-Assad in Syria to assert their geopolitical interests and strategic partnership in the region. However, in the context of the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership vis-à-vis the Ukrainian invasion, we can identify a greater synthesis of the military doctrines of Tehran and Moscow and their respective political and economic objectives. The war in Ukraine provides another dimension to the Russo-Iranian strategic cooperation.

Source: KREMLIN/ALEXANDR DEMYANCHUK via Associated Press

Both Russia and Iran find themselves increasingly isolated from the international community. Thus, strategic military cooperation provides unparalleled economic and political relief for the two ‘quasi-pariahs’. Russia, now a state proficient in the avoidance of sanctions, has been keenly training their Iranian counterparts the same techniques so as to continue fruitful trade between the two nations. Through the provision of loitering munitions–“kamikaze” drones–to Russia on the Ukrainian battlefields, Iran is hopeful it can alleviate the pressures of its current economic position–a position exponentially compounded by sanctions imposed by the West, as well as a metaphoric flex of muscles to its regional adversaries.

For Moscow, importing Iranian drones provides a cheap and effective method of carrying out its strategic goals in Ukraine. Costing roughly $20,000 per unit, Iranian “kamikaze” drones, such as the Shahed-136, strategically emboldens Putin’s war machine at little significant cost to Moscow. The capability of devastation loaded to these drones, however, should not be underexaggerated. Not only does ‘strategically cooperating’ with Iran alleviate the pressures of drone production on a beleaguered Russian economy, but it also perpetuates the likelihood of Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

The so-called strategic cooperation between the Islamic Republic and Russia is in reality, mostly a one-way pact in favour of the Kremlin. Russia has backed its allies, such as Syria and Belarus to suppress the protests ruthlessly. In this case regarding Iran, Russian intervention can be divided into three categories:

  1. Sending forces, which is not possible considering the serious lack of forces on the Ukrainian front. It is also crucial to mention that officials such as Sergei Surovikin who is one of the very few suitable forces to have such a role is now the new commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine.
  2. Intelligence and Security cooperation, which precedent shows cannot exceed a certain level as it is a double-edged blade. Such cooperation in precedent was provided for Ba’ath movement in the Arab world but never exceeded a certain limit
  3. Disinformation and #propaganda support, for which Russia holds the first place in the world but has already offered its best to the Islamic Republic.

Hence, it should not be a point that can discourage the Iranian people. Also, the international community is closely following the Tehran-Kremlin affairs. They will respond to such cooperation under many causes, making them take more serious positions regarding Iran's atrocious human rights violations.

The Islamic Republic’s interest in Russia is mostly based on three main elements. The first element is cooperation regarding the development of satellite technologies because the Islamic republic wants to save its three satellite positions and benefit from Russian satellites, not only for communication means but also for espionage. The second element to consider is Islamic republics’ dependency on the Russian campaign and models of disinformation, which they try to apply within the country. Finally, the third reason is their #intelligence cooperation and their need for structural support from Russia.
Beyond these three elements, we should consider something called “the mad king phase, " a state where it’s a totalitarian system, before its demise, tends to commit grave strategic mistake after strategic mistake.

The response by the international community can only manoeuvre a little on the particular matter of drones because of legal technicalities that make this matter quite hard to analyze. However, it is crucial to consider that the political will to oppose the affluence of the Islamic republic will become much stronger, more systematic, and more collective.

Ukraine’s best strategy to counter the drones made by the Islamic Republic can come from a country that has been studying them for quite a few years. Israel has developed both #IronDome and IronBeam at the Rafael Company by precisely studying and developing mathematical models of the technologies that were used in most of the missiles and drones that came from Gaza and Lebanon, but originated from the Islamic republic. Even though the Israelis have expressed that they will not intervene in this war, it does not keep Israel from giving Ukraine practical, useful intelligence that can help them with countermeasures for these drones.

The convergence of Iranian and Russian interests has constituted a long-lasting partnership characterized by anti-Western sentiments focusing on limiting NATO expansion, protecting and affirming the countries’ respective sovereignty, and enhancing military and technological capabilities. This partnership has materialized, across the years, through a constellation of hard and soft power measures, spacing from exchanges of weapons and military know-how on one hand to the common ideologically-based spread of disinformation and counter-narratives against common enemies on the other. As for now, the war in Ukraine provides new momentum to this allyship as the conflicts continue to evolve.

Whether the international community is effective vis-à-vis Iran and Russia also depends on the cohesiveness of their collective action. We have already witnessed a round of sanctions from the EU and the UK on Iranian drones in October 2022, precisely in response to their use on the Ukrainian conflict. As for the US, punitive measures targeting drones’ producers for Teheran have been issued as of three days ago. While Western power keeps a strict opposing stand against the Iranian-Russian allyship, China may emerge from this as a new mediating power between the two parts. The latter has already facilitated the recent agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore their diplomatic relations. It will discuss a possible resolution of the war in Ukraine with Spanish PM Sanchez in a soon-to-come meeting.

In the meantime, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to deny the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Ukraine. Accordingly, and in line with the anti-Western rhetoric previously mentioned, the official position reiterated by the Ayatollah is that the conflict in general was devised as a US-based diversion to justify NATO’s enlargements. As the UK gets ready to send armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium to Ukrainian forces, between the Kremlin, already protesting for the use of “nuclear weapons”, and the care recommendations of the UN on radioactive exposure, the conflict confirms to be yet another chessboard where the international power games unfold, with Iran and Russia playing on the same side.

March 6, 2023No Comments

Hambantota: The Epitome of Sri Lanka’s Broken Politics 

Author: Carlotta Rinaudo

“Everybody says Hambantota was ‘invaded’ by the Chinese. Well, just look around… There are probably no more than twenty Chinese people in the whole town. We definitely were not invaded by anyone. If anything, we Sri Lankans are hostages – hostages of our political class”, says Dilshan while sipping his tea. He is an ordinary man that lives in Hambantota, a sleepy town at the Southern tip of Sri Lanka - a remote place where taxis are nowhere to be found, public buses remain rudimentary, and the local residents buzz around the streets on rusty TukTuks, making a living mostly out of fishing and agriculture. Those that visit Hambantota are soon warned by a yellow signal: beware of wild elephants - they might come out of the bush and cross your way. It seems ironic that this forgotten tropical town with only 11,000 residents has recently drawn intense scrutiny from international media, becoming the epicenter of a fierce debate in academic and political circles. At the heart of this debate is a metaphorical “white elephant” – not the one that might come out of the bush - but the giant port that sits on the town’s coastline: the Hambantota Port.

(A common street in Sri Lanka. Credit: Flickr)

The Hambantota Port was part of Beijing’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, and its construction was mostly funded by Chinese loans. When in 2017, the debt-ridden Sri Lankan government decided to lease a 70% stake in the port to the China Merchants Group for 99 years, Hambantota became a symbol fiercely cited by devoted proponents of the so-called ‘debt trap theory’. This narrative depicts China as a predatory investor that invites the Global South nations to join the BRI’s family and then deliberately pushes them into debt through murky loans and contracts. At this point, when the naïve, cash-strapped government is buried in debts it can’t repay, Beijing carries out its calculated master plan and forces its victim to cease its national assets. “Look what happened in Hambantota!”, is a claim that still reverberates in many political discussions, often with a prophetic tone.

Walking in Hambantota today, however, reveals a more complex reality. The discontent of the local people and the semi-abandoned buildings give away a different truth: there is another side of the debt-trap theory - one that is often overlooked. The countries that join the Belt and Road Initiative are not always led by cash-strapped, naïve, unaware politicians that happen to find themselves buried in debt, with no other choice than ceasing national assets to Beijing. Often, these might actually be corrupt politicians, blinded by megalomaniac tendencies left unchecked, that utilize Chinese loans for their own political and material gains.

(The Fishing Market of Hambantota. Credit: Flickr)

For almost two decades, Sri Lanka’s political landscape has been dominated by the Rajapaksa family, a political clan that essentially ruled Sri Lanka like an autocratic family business. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President in 2005, part of his political manifesto promised to deliver economic revitalization by constructing megaprojects and new infrastructure. Unfortunately, Rajapaksa failed to become the architect of Sri Lanka’s economic miracle: instead, he created a ticking bomb. First, he built the foundations of this economic revitalization on unsustainable debt, recklessly borrowing from bilateral lenders, mainly China, India, and Japan, as well as from a wide range of private investors. On this shaky ground, the government erected a wide array of megaprojects without conducting proper feasibility studies – essentially, building pieces of infrastructure that would never be commercially viable. Meanwhile, the Rajapaksa family has been accused of corruption, nepotism, bribes, and money laundering, with its members secretly transferring billions to accounts abroad. The infamous port of Hambantota, therefore, might not be the story of a Chinese masterplan. It is more of a tale of Sri Lanka’s broken politics.

In the early 2000s, many experts frowned upon the decision to build a new port in Hambantota, only 200 km away from Colombo, which hosts the 25th busiest port in the world. For a small island nation like Sri Lanka, this did not seem like a calculated, rational decision. In fact, it was a political one. Mahinda Rajapaksa is from the Hambantota district, a place where he hoped to solidify his grip on power and build a political stronghold. He thus erected a wide array of megaprojects - some of them carrying his name – in an attempt to elevate himself as the strongman that was capable of delivering economic revitalization to his native area. Today, in Hambantota, the signs of Rajapaksa’s megalomania and heavy spending are everywhere – not only in the port itself. Take the cricket stadium, built with a capacity of 35,000 people for a remote town with only 11,000 residents: largely unsuccessful, it is often used as a wedding venue to recover some profit. Alternatively, the airport sits semi-abandoned with no departures or arrivals. Moreover, the huge convention centre that barely hosts any event – at the moment, it has mostly become a playground for Sri Lankan kids, who often play cricket next to the main entrance. These white elephants are the grim legacy of a political dynasty out of touch with reality, unable to comprehend the needs of the people they governed, whom they eventually dragged into bankruptcy in 2022.
“They built a port, an airport, a conference centre, and a cricket stadium, but they forgot that we in Hambantota are mostly farmers. What we really need is agricultural reform – not another empty project,” says Anaya, who used to be a teacher.

(A train in Sri Lanka. Credit: Flickr)

For the much-debated port of Hambantota, China Exim Bank provided 85% of the funding at an unusually high-interest rate of 6.3%. The proponents of the debt-trap theory interpret this as yet another sign of Beijing’s plan to push Colombo into debt. Yet this might be simplistic thinking that once again fails to consider the broader context of the Sri Lankan reality. When construction of the Hambantota port began in 2007, Sri Lanka was still ravaged by one of the bloodiest phases of a decades-long civil war, struggling to generate public revenue. The government presented the port project to many investors, yet China emerged as the only country that was willing to take the risk of financing the megaproject. More than a predatory investor, China was a lender of last resort. Moreover, it demanded a high-interest rate because it essentially offered a high-risk loan to a conflict-torn country.

Once the Chinese loan was granted, the Sri Lankan government failed to plan its spending in a way that could offer quick returns. The Danish firm Ramboll recommended that, during the first phase of construction, the port should only manage the transport of non-containerized cargo, like oil tanks and cars. Once the Hambantota port generated the necessary revenue, Ramboll suggested, new parts could be constructed. Yet the Sri Lankan government took the hasty decision to request new funding and proceed with the second phase of the construction, immediately transforming Hambantota into a container port.
“Experts suggested they constructed different parts of the port at different times, allowing each phase to be profitable and operational. Instead, the government preferred to build everything at the same time, although this implied more borrowing without solid revenues”, says Dilshan. Corruption and self-interest were also widespread. For instance, Ramboll forecasted that building a bunkering facility at Hambantota would cost roughly $33 million, yet the ports Minister submitted a document that demanded a $100 million loan. The extra cash was allegedly poured into the pockets of the Rajapaksa clan.

(A Sri Lankan lady. Credit: Flickr)

By 2014, the Hambantota port was a fiasco and a burden to the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan Port Authority found itself diverting money from the profitable Colombo port because Hambantota’s revenues were too low for the port to sustain itself. In 2016 many Western creditors were also demanding their annual repayments, and Sri Lanka found itself in need of foreign exchange. The ticking bomb created by Mahinda Rajapaksa was about to explode. And this is when Sri Lanka decided to lease out Hambantota to China Merchants Port for a 99-year concession. It was not about a predatory investor attempting to seize its debtor’s national assets: it was more about Sri Lanka getting rid of an inefficient and underperforming port to restore its foreign reserves, which had dried up after years of heavy borrowings and irrational spending.

The debt trap theory fails to consider that recipients of Chinese funding are often autocratic and corrupted leaders seeking to advance their political agenda. Visiting Hambantota and its semi-abandoned buildings suggests that, for the population of a developing country like Sri Lanka, living under these regimes might in fact be the real trap.

*For privacy and security reasons, pseudonyms are being used to de-identify those that shared information and personal opinions with the author

February 27, 2023No Comments

You may now go in peace and charity. How the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI can shape Australian foreign policy (and that of the world)

Author: Leigh Dawson

“Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests… resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalised society at difficult times like the present.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate[1]

As the dawn of the New Year approached, the world lost one of the greatest theologians in history. Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, died aged 95 after years of ill health. It was a “lack of strength of body and mind” that ultimately led Benedict XVI to become the first Pope in more than 800 years to resign as head of the Catholic Church in 2013. 

Arguably his most significant theological contribution, the 2009 Papal Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, continues to get overlooked by international relations scholars and government bodies globally for its potential to shape future foreign policy strategy. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI asks: can foreign policy have a human face? Can human life be placed at the core of all government decision-making? 

This article, which is based on a broader research project, contributes to the growing field of international relations scholarship by investigating the importance of religion in creating a more egalitarian global community. This is the first body of work, of which the author is aware, that investigates and applies fundamental principles of Catholic scholarship to the foreign policy strategy of a nation, in this case, Australia – a nation struggling with declining rates of Catholicism and to define its purpose amidst global pressure for action on climate change, approaches to conflict, and attitudes towards migration. 


Caritas in Veritate  

Delivered in Rome, Italy, on 29 June 2009 in the fifth year of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI cited Caritas in Veritate as the cornerstone of his Papacy. It laid out a template by which all people could show leadership on human development in charity and truth. Caritas in Veritate, simply ‘charity in truth’, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and all of humanity.

Love drives peace. To find love, and subsequently peace, one must also find truth and defend it – only then can one become the ‘face of foreign affairs’ and begin to understand ‘the other’. Charity is at the heart of the Catholic social doctrine.

Benedict XVI recognised charity as both an authentic expression of humanity and an element of fundamental importance in human relations, including those of a public nature. He believed the meaning of charity had been corrupted by secular forces including the media, politicians, and business groups who equated charity as merely helping others in need. Caritas in Veritate is the doctrine by which this perspective shifts. 

Within the backdrop of ongoing cases of religiously motivated violence, it seems fair to ask how people could possibly consider religion or religious principles, such as charity, to be a guiding light for the future Australian foreign policy? 

Implications for Australian foreign policy

Australia’s foreign policy strategy is not only severely outdated but has been met with a mixed response by nations across the world. Complicating matters further, religion and politics have a long and often controversial history in Australia, most of it associated with Christianity.

Reflecting this conundrum, the 2021 Australian Census revealed a nation that is more divided than ever. For the first time in history, fewer than half of Australians identified as Christian, though Christianity remains the most common religion in Australia at 43.9 per cent of the population. The number of Australians who declared ‘no religion’ rose almost 10 per cent in five years to 39 per cent.[1] Hence, Australia is partly a Christian country, partly a multifaith country, and partly a secularist country – this makes speaking or generalising about religion in Australia complicated. 

The 2017 Australian Foreign White Paper – the most recent document by the Australian Government outlining its foreign policy strategy – outlined five core objectives to deliver Australian security and prosperity – protection of a rules-based international order; environment; migration; poverty and human rights; and global business and protectionism.[2]

A major criticism of the White Paper is there are no clear directions or methodology outlining how Australia is going to achieve these goals. Australia has been scrambling to meet climate goals set out by the Paris Agreement; criticised globally for its lack of humanitarian foreign engagement; and generally seen as an unfriendly and hostile nation for welcoming refugees. 

Despite Australia becoming a more secular nation, active rejection of religion in Australia has not become the norm. Australians will typically accept the religious views, spiritualities and commitments of others, if no one tries to impose their teachings on them. This is an important insight to understand if and how Caritas in Veritate could influence Australian foreign policy, and whether the Australian population would welcome this new approach. 

Can ‘Charity in Truth’ shape foreign policy strategy in Australia?

In short, yes it can. And, in fact, some of the lessons learned could guide other nations across the world to make similar adjustments to their foreign policies, with the view to placing ‘the human’ at the centre of all decision-making. This point can be illustrated using three examples:

Firstly, Caritas in Veritate can help Australia achieve a rules-based international order in the Asia-Pacific and adhere to the Just War Theory all the same. Findings in the Brereton Report about the conduct of Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan across a 10-year period disclosed 39 unlawful killings by Australian defence members. The outcomes shocked a once proud defence unit – and the Australian public – to the core as these alleged crimes took place outside the heat of battle. A ‘warrior culture’ had infiltrated the Australian Special Forces raising questions about the legitimacy of the conflict, and in fact, whether it fit the Just War Tradition. 

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI states that without a fresh moral heart, the past remains unhealed and can cause even greater harm in the future. Therefore, if charity is an act of practicality, and the quest for truth delivers authenticity and love, Australia should consider input from its returning service personnel in any future foreign policy strategy on conflict intervention.

Secondly, it can advance Australia’s climate policy substantially as policy begins to consider those across the world who are facing displacement due to drought, rising sea levels, and changing ecosystems. Caritas in Veritate states nature expresses a design of love and truth: “it was prior to us and has been given to us by God as the setting for our life”.[3] Estimates suggest that by the year 2050, up to 700 million people may be displaced because of climate change.[4] By comparison, the aftermath of the Second World War saw anywhere from 40 to 66 million people displaced. Climate change will also impact the journeys these populations will take, with rising sea levels and drought adding to the treacherous paths to freedom, which is antithetical to Benedict XVI’s desire. 

Lastly, Caritas in Veritate will drive a complete rethink in Australian Government border policy towards refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants arriving in the country. Boat-turnback policy initiated by the Australian Government caused international condemnation and considerable deaths at sea of vulnerable people that could have been avoided.  Caritas in Veritate reminds governments that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is the human.

Implications for future scholarship and policy development

Some possible policy recommendations for the Australian Government to consider, which are grounded in and inspired by Benedict XVI, include:

  • Seek mandatory input from returned Australian Defence Force representatives on shaping policy regarding Australian involvement in international conflict that has no direct threat to national security. And, subsequently, establish a policy that vests action through international agencies such as the United Nations to seek a humanitarian response to conflict. 
  • Australia should further its commitment to reduce carbon emissions by developing policy forcing mining companies operating within Australia that have projects in developing nations to either cease operations in those nations or deliver profound rehabilitation and financial benefits to those countries to reduce the human and environmental cost that climate change is likely to have.
  • Take an approach to resettlement in the regions, where community spirit and inclusion is high, and jobs are abundant. This will give refugees a chance at gaining stability in their new home country. 
  • Foreign aid should be directed towards global projects including school construction, regenerating soils for food growth, building new roads, or enhancing industry capabilities. 
  • Australia should establish an Office of Religion and Global Affairs to further increase an understanding of religious dynamics and engagement with religious actors, as well as ‘the other’. 

Further research could apply this strategy to the rich religions of Judaism and Islam, as well as Hinduism and others, to ascertain whether a ‘new’ theory – possibly, ‘Religious Global Peace Theory’ – could become commonplace in academic scholarship and international governance.


People must be at the centre of all diplomatic action. If charity is love given and received as Benedict XVI intended, then charity must be of benefit, bipartisan, demonstrate reciprocity, and be from good natured intentions.

Australian foreign policy strategy needs an urgent rethink as geopolitical challenges rise in the Indo-Pacific, and globalisation exacerbates the impact of international issues in domestic affairs. Caritas in Veritate could offer guidance for Australia on how to advance human-centered leadership in foreign policy. Foreign policy can have a human face after all. 

[1] Markus Mannheim, “Census 2021 Data Shows Australians are Less Religious and More Culturally Diverse than Ever,” ABC News Online, June 28, 2022,

[2] “2017 Australian Government Foreign Policy White Paper,” Australian Government (2017): 3,

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate,” 32.

[4] Alex Alvarez, “Intervention III,” CrossCurrents 67, no. 3 (2017): 635,

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate,” Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff on Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth (2009): 3,

February 13, 2023No Comments

The Ba-looming crisis

Author: Gianluca Catucci


The undisturbed incursion by the Chinese balloon into American territory and over military sites captured the attention of analysts worldwide, climaxing in a spectacular battle between an F-22 fighter jet and a balloon. After some hesitation by American leadership, the downing was authorised and live-aired but raised many legal and political issues.

Vintage Balloons

The first question is why China, a technological giant, would need balloons to spy on US territory.Compared to drones and satellites, balloons are infinitely less expensive and preferable in an operation at a high risk of loss of the device. Furthermore, balloons float at an altitude significantly lower than satellites, thus potentially capturing audio that the latter cannot intercept, and providing higher-quality imaging. Balloons also allow constant surveillance whilst being much less detectable, as they can hover for long escaping radars, and can even deploy their drones. Lastly, whilst subject to wind patterns, they are more manoeuvrable and their flight altitude can be modified.

The test of International Law

Before addressing the political consequences of the balloon’s destruction, it is important to put the operation to the test of international law. According to the Chicago Convention (ICAO, 1944), articles 1-3, “every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory.” Commercial airliners and balloons both qualify as civilian airships, and thus cannot fly over the territory of another country without permission.

But what constitutes sovereign airspace?

International law is very clear about the horizontal limits of sovereignty, which is established in the 1982 UNCLOS: it extends until the territorial waters of a state (12nm from the baseline). Conversely, there is no agreement over what constitutes the vertical boundary of sovereignty, a matter on which the Montego Bay Convention, the Chicago Convention, and the Outer Space Treaty are silent. States have thus used divergent standards to draw the line between national airspace and outer space. Technically, states could claim as sovereign territory up to 100 km of space above ground (62 mi, the Kármán line).

Image Source:

The consequences of this distinction cannot be overstated: states have sovereign authority and jurisdiction over their airspace, but no one has authority over outer space, which is an international commons.

China contends that the balloon was a civilian device conducting meteorological research in outer space, while the most credible accounts report the UAV flying at 60.000 feet above the ground. According to US practice, this would be considered within American airspaces, like all aircraft flying below 100.000 feet, and its transit would thus be conditional upon permission by state authorities. Article 3(bis) of the Chicago Convention proscribes the use of force against civilian aircraft. Nonetheless, in the case at hand, international and domestic rules were violated, giving the US the right to restore its domestic law & order via countermeasures and the use of internal force, as long as proportionate and necessary, a test facilitated by the absence of human personnel on the airship.

Moreover, if it were proven that the balloon was a spy device - increasingly likely while it is being dismantled and studied - its status would not be regulated by the Chicago Convention, which deals only with civilian aircraft. Indeed, a spy balloon is considered a state military aircraft. A violation of sovereign airspace by such an airship would thus amount to a use of force in violation of “the territorial integrity or political independence” of the United States, as per art.2(4) of the UN Charter. As similar past episodes showed, the US was entirely within its rights in neutralising the possible threat, again provided that the response was necessary and proportionate.

The Communist Party answered in dismay, alleging a force majeure justification in a note by the Foreign Ministry. Top diplomats have harshly criticized President Biden for his aggressive tone in the State of the Union address. Nevertheless, the official response was not excessively confrontational, and a final answer on the nature of the incursion is yet to arrive. Furthermore, evidence is emerging concerning a larger swarm of Chinese balloons over all five continents, and of a case where China, on the receiving side of a surveillance balloon, shot it down in 2019 alleging similar justifications.

Political Consequences

After having established the legality of the shooting, the next step requires analyzing its political context and consequences. This incident inserts itself into a string of tensions between the two superpowers, the zenith of which consisted in Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August. 

Biden and Xi’s meeting in Bali helped thaw out the situation, with both leaders agreeing on the need for open and direct diplomatic channels to communicate. However, top American military officials have criticized the Chinese leadership for not fulfilling their promise in the case at hand, leaving calls by the Defense Secretary unanswered. Fears are that a lack of communication may make misunderstandings and flare-ups more likely; crisis hotlines during the Cold War with the Kremlin proved vital for averting open hostilities.

While the significance of the data collected is poor, the undisturbed penetration of a Chinese balloon within the US mainland caused a few headaches to American officials. It is a clear signal from the CCP that it has the capacity to trespass on American territory, and not only small atolls in the South China Sea. Moreover, through a grey-zone operation, Beijing has successfully used non-violent means for a clear political goal: destabilising its main adversary while averting an overt military response.

Hence, not only has the incursion shown the disruptive potential of Chinese technology, but it has exposed the vulnerability of American intelligence services, fuelling chaos in American public opinion and halls of power. Hawkish members of Congress, notably Republicans, have lashed out at President Biden for having failed to prevent or act quicker. The live coverage of the balloon’s destruction sought to remedy this fiasco but contributed to exacerbating tensions and Anti-Asian rhetoric, already high in the country, and to fan the flames of a spiralling escalation not only of words.


The balloon incident is just another episode of a saga of a looming US-China crisis. It highlighted the lack of true communication hotlines between the two nuclear powers and the threat this poses to international peace and security. Indeed, misunderstandings between nuclear powers and poor crisis management could lead to apocalyptic scenarios.

While the People’s Republic tested US tolerance, the latter responded by showing that it means business, by annihilating the balloon with a $400.000 missile fired by the most advanced fighter in the world. This adds to its muscle-flexing through a chip embargo and a deal with the Philippines for the use of four military bases.

Overall, both sides seem to ignore conciliatory avenues and through unscrupulous violations of sovereignty, grey-zone operations, discordance in crucial international fora, and muscle-flexing, they keep fanning the flames of strategic competition. Even worse, aggressive rhetoric bounces from Beijing to Washington with little consideration for its consequences.

Through belligerent discourse and the antagonization of the other, the US and China contribute to constructing the idea of the enemy and convincing stakeholders and citizens of the inevitability of conflict, potentially exposing the world to a self-fulfilling prophecy and global catastrophe. While the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists considers this only 90 seconds away, hope is that de-escalation efforts and the Bali agenda return to the central stage.

February 7, 2023No Comments

Space Warfare: How are offensive military operations conducted in Space?

This is a transcript of an indepth interview with Paul S. Szymanski who has a 49 year experience conducting military operations research analyses for the United States Air Force and Space Force, Navy, Army and Marines. These include outer space program analysis, management, and development of space warfare theory, policy, doctrine, strategies, tactics and techniques. He has worked with the Air Staff at the Pentagon (Secretary of the Air Force), the Space and Missiles Systems Center (Now SSC) in Los Angeles, and the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with experience in operational field testing of missile systems at China Lake, California. He is the author of several publications. This transcript is second in a three-part series of content extracted from an interview with Mr. Szymanski.

Interviewed and Edited by: Danilo delle Fave.

Image Source:

What are some of the potential threats in Space?

Cyber Attacks: The most popular means of attack against space systems where the entire spectrum of space systems is vulnerable to these attacks. Each country is vulnerable to such hacking. A smaller/poorer country can purchase a surplus satellite (or critical parts thereof) and then conduct hacker contests against these test satellites with significant cash prizes to the teams that cause the best effects against these space system. The same techniques can be employed to train individuals on how to penetrate space ground systems. All of these space systems, including space jammers, are readily available on the commercial market for installation in your country of choice.

Terrestrial Attacks: Any country on Earth has special forces that can penetrate adversary ground systems (satellite control stations, RADARS, Optical Space Tracking Telescopes, etc.). These special forces can insert cyber codes into critical systems, install mines, etc. In addition, spy networks can be employed to “turn” the loyalties of adversary space technicians to influence them to insert threat cyber codes and sabotage critical adversary space systems on the ground.

Space Surveillance Systems: In order to achieve smart space control, a country needs to better understand the orbits, status and capabilities of their adversary space systems. This can readily be achieved through ground-based RADARS and optical imagery/tracking systems. Optical tracking systems can be assembled using amateur astronomy telescopes, and many amateurs employ these around the World in this role. They do not cost that much, are fully automated, and can be placed on the rooftops of country embassies around the World, particularly in countries that have good weather conditions and visibility to space. With such situational knowledge, a poorer country can attack an adversary satellite at the same time a third country is “visiting” the targeted space system with an inspector/rendezvous satellite in order to place the attack blame on another country.

Laser Attacks: Currently, consumers can openly purchase hand-held 7.5-watt laser systems. Attach one of these to the above-mentioned astronomical telescope, and with the proper alignment techniques, a poorer country can blind an adversary imaging satellite, or maybe even spoof its Earth limb sensors. With even much more powerful and better collimated industrial lasers, a second world country may even be able to permanently damage these sensors. In the least, one should be able to initiate satellite self-defense mechanisms (close sensor shutters, roll satellite) that will take the attacked satellite systems offline for hours if not days, rendering it ineffective during some critical time during a terrestrial battle.

January 30, 2023No Comments

State Supremacy: Can it be Achieved?

This blog article is written following an indepth interview with Paul S. Szymanski who has a 49 year experience conducting military operations research analyses for the United States Air Force and Space Force, Navy, Army and Marines. These include outer space program analysis, management, and development of space warfare theory, policy, doctrine, strategies, tactics and techniques. He has worked with the Air Staff at the Pentagon (Secretary of the Air Force), the Space and Missiles Systems Center (Now SSC) in Los Angeles, and the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with experience in operational field testing of missile systems at China Lake, California. He is the author of several publications. This blog article in the first in a three-part series of content extracted from an interview with Mr. Szymanski.

Interviewed and Edited By: Danilo delle Fave.

Space superiority debate borrows from postulates of sea (maritime) and air superiority but vastness, obscurity, and complexity of space making it near impossible for any country to achieve space supremacy. 

The vastness of space could be understood by a simple thought-experiment: imagine taking a basketball and hiding it somewhere on Earth, and then challenging someone to find it. To further elaborate, Earth’s oceans contain 329 million cubic miles of water, both on and below the surface, the volume of space between the Earth and the Moon is 4.81097E+16 cubic miles. Therefore, to achieve space supremacy, a country has to “control” 146,230,091 times the volume of the Earth’s oceans; a near impossible task for this century. 

Similarly, the notion that since there is no geographic feature in space, satellites cannot hide from Earth or space-based sensor networks is false. Satellites are “lost” all the time; often space objects are classified as ‘analyst objects’, simply because their characteristics and ownership is not known. This is a challenge when identifying targets for space weapons systems. How can a country be sure it has identified the correct asset? How can certainty that a potential satellite is really a threat be achieved? 

Lastly, space is complex with multitude of space systems of interest to military targeteers. This adds to the complexity because possible adversarial attacks could be terrestrial-based, space-based, cyber or physical attacks, etc. and must be accounted for. 

Beyond the basic characteristics of space that may create obstacles for outer space warfare, are other more complex issues of lawfare and defence. Whilst treaties exist to limit outer space weapons, the vastness and obscurity of space makes implementation of these treaties very difficult. This is because very few countries have space surveillance sensors – which fall short of the ability to adequately identify satellites, their capabilities and make up in an environment where they are rapidly moving and spinning. Furthermore, to verify a space treaty the United Nations would have to possess an extensive world-wide network of sensors, which would be very expensive to build and maintain, and would ultimately be imperfect anyway.

Outer space wars are likely to be very rapid and could conclude in 24-48 hours before a country can realise who attacked, for what intent and how to best defend. Any actual "fighting" can only occur with assets in the immediate area, because the ability to make large manoeuvres in space takes a lot of fuel and a lot of time. More than likely, an ally's space assets will be in places around the Earth that are far removed from the immediate conflict. Also, Rules of Engagement will be different, due to differing value systems. In Europe, causing human deaths to preserve equipment is not allowed, whereas in the US, it is different. For examples would Europeans allow bombs on a manned Earth station controlling an adversary space weapon?

In conclusion, perhaps space supremacy might be achievable in in a specific orbital regime and a specific, limited time. However, hypervelocity attacks can come from any other orbit in a rapid manner and upset this ‘superiority’. But it is important to consider this: Satellites are worthless if they cannot communicate back to Earth to receive controlling instructions or download their data. If a country can cut off most, if not all, communications to a country’s space systems, then maybe they have achieved space supremacy. This denial of space communications would not only have to be effective within the country’s boundaries, but for other satellite control sites around the world that this country may employ, or for friendly satellite tracking ships on the world’s oceans.

January 23, 2023No Comments

The Middle East in 2023: From Revolution to Survival

Author: Omri Brinner and Chantal Elisabeth Hohe.

2022 brought about several game-changing developments in the Middle East and beyond. These events - from domestic political instability, through the weakening of American influence in the region, to the protests in Iran - will all leave a mark in 2023, a year that is shaping to be decisive for the Middle East’s future.

Of the many things to monitor in the region during 2023, four issues stand out the most, largely due to their international significance. These are the American involvement in the Middle East; climate change and the region’s efforts - or lack of - to counter it; the domestic upheaval in Iran and its global impact; and the economic situation across the region, with a growing number of countries in economic disarray (Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen).

Image Source: 

The US in the Middle East

Going into 2023, the United State’s role in the Middle East is undefined. Had it been clear and obvious, American officials wouldn’t have to reiterate that their country will remain pivotal as it once was. The facts on the ground suggest less American physical involvement. There are less American troops in the region; American diplomacy has been weakened; and one is much more exposed to alternative soft power than before. In that sense we are expected to see declining American presence across the region. Diplomatically, the US is losing grip as well. While it largely has Israel on its side in its competition with China and Russia, other allies - most notably Saudi Arabia - are becoming less and less dependent on the US, fueling a multipolar world where the US is now one of many, rather than the one. The US can stay assured that it will continue to have leverage over several individuals and countries in the coming year, but all in all - and much due to the multipolar inertia across the region - this leverage is not infinite, and further distancing from American policies are likely to follow. This dynamic played out in the relations between President Biden and the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman, where the latter refused to give-in to American pressure on oil prices, proving that the American leverage on him and his country is limited. In other words, American superiority will not only continue to be challenged from afar, but also from within the region itself.


2023 might very well be the year of the Persian Spring. The revolutionary protests that began in September have the potential to spin the regime out of control and to create a new reality in the country, and the region. What started as a social protest against the state’s brutality and the killing of Masha Amini has developed into a full regime-change movement, with the slogan “death to Khamenei” gaining momentum and legitimacy on social media. It is of course possible that the harsh and lethal crackdown by the state will break the back of the revolution, but these past few months and the ones to follow will certainly change Iran and affect the region as a whole, whichever way the wind blows.

Furthermore, in light of the internal turmoil and the fact that the Iranian nuclear deal is all but alive, it is likely that Iran will push to both enrich as much uranium as possible and to create destabilizing chaos across the region in the coming months. All in all, what happens in Iran during 2023 will determine the near future of the Middle East.


After a rather unsuccessful COP27 failed to produce actionable policy solutions or real commitments from the international community, a decisive year lies ahead for the Middle East, where people will continue suffering from the consequences of the climate crisis. Most prominently, water scarcity will lead to an increasingly dire situation, fueling food insecurity, economic downturn, civil unrest, and violent extremism. That said, several innovative start-ups and promising technologies are on the rise, with the GCC countries upping the funding to accelerate developments in the field. Hope now lies upon the Abu Dhabi COP28, set to take place in November and, ironically, hosted by UAE’s National Oil Company CEO, with civil society organizations and academia urging for serious action.


A cleavage in economic performance is increasingly visible among Middle Eastern countries, with the oil-based GCC monarchies witnessing continuous growth - whereas others are facing economic decline, leading to or exacerbating existing socio-political turbulences. The economic outlook for 2023 indicates that inflation is likely to surpass 30% in numerous countries, with Syria at 63% and Lebanon at a staggering 167% . Further regional actors, such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt, and Yemen, face economic hardship while also having to tackle political challenges, civil unrest, and violent conflicts. Overall, domestic and international factors - such as the war in Ukraine - are likely to deepen a looming recession and the energy crisis. While it is likely that wealthy GCC countries will continue to support struggling regional allies, countries such as Yemen, Libya and Lebanon will continue to be used as arenas for proxy wars, further deepening their economic troubles.

January 23, 2023No Comments

Liberté, fraternité ou renvoyer: France -Italy feud highlights EU’s incompetence in harmonizing shared responsibility

Author: Isabel Dekker and Federico Alistair D'Alessio.

Between the 22nd and 26th of October 2022, 234 migrants (including over 40 minors) were rescued by the Ocean Viking, a rescue boat managed by SOS Méditerranée, a humanitarian organization that rescues people in distress at sea. Before being allowed to dock in Toulon (France) on the 11th of November, the boat was stranded at sea for almost three weeks leading to a rapid decline in the passengers’ health. The vessel landed in France after Italy refused to allow the ship to dock on their shores, intensifying their bitter dispute over migration. Since 2015, the EU has forwarded numerous initiatives to improve the coordination and handling of the arrival of migrants. Nevertheless, EU’s migration policies are often executed in an ad hoc fashion resulting in diplomatic tensions across the European continent.


The French government condemned Italy’s refusal to welcome the vessel carrying over 200 migrants: the French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin referred to Italy’s actions as ’incomprehensible’ and ’unacceptable’, in addition to emphasizing on ‘strong consequences’ for the relations between the two countries. 

France has also adjourned its collaboration in the relocation mechanism which was proposed last June. This plan concerned a dozen European Union member states, including France, The Netherlands and Germany, which voluntarily decided to welcome 8,000 migrants arriving in countries of first entry to Europe, such as Italy. The Interior Ministry announced that the planned relocation of 3,500 people to France in support of Italy between the summer of 2022 and 2023 is suspended, while also inviting other EU member states to do so. Moreover, France has also strengthened its border controls with Italy. 

‘’It’s the Italian government that’s losing out’’ – Mr. Darmanin (Minister of Interior)

Nevertheless, France has had its own political rows over accepting the ship, as far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen called Macron ‘dramatically’ soft on migration and justified and praised the decisions taken by the Italian government. 


By denying the Ocean Viking to dock in Catania, the Italian government has reiterated a message often emphasized by the countries most affected by migration: the responsibility of receiving and integrating migrants must be shared equally by all EU member states. Italian PM Giorgia Meloni strongly criticizes the Dublin III Regulation, according to which each asylum application must be examined only by the first country where the migrants disembark in. This represents a significant disadvantage for Mediterranean countries as they are always considered the nearest place of safety when dealing with boats coming from Africa. 

Criticism also concerns the lack of a clear and effective European framework regarding the relocation of migrants. The most recent plan was arranged last summer, but it did not lead to the expected outcome. A voluntary redistribution of 8000 migrants was agreed, but just 117 of them have been resettled so far, of which only 38 to France. As a result of this perceived failure, a joint statement issued in November by Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta laments the little support shown by other member states to share the burden of asylum applications, as well as the absence of a common strategy to adequately support frontline countries. 

Meloni criticizes what she referred to as an ‘incomprehensible and unjustified’ reaction of the French government, which decided to freeze the abovementioned plan and suggested the rest of the EU to act accordingly. France also chose to strengthen its control over borders with Italy, even though similar measures in the past have brought to light to questionable tactics used by French authorities to pushback migrants.

Moreover, the Italian government underlines that the country has dealt with more than 100 thousand arrivals by sea in 2022, which represents a sharp increase in comparison to previous years. Considering this evidence and given that the Italian government allowed three ships out of four to disembark, the Ministry of Interior deemed reasonable for France to accommodate the last migrant rescue boat. 


Picture via Wikimedia Commons

The Vice President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, criticized Italy for its ambiguous approach: the government requested more European solidarity, but at the same time did not allow the docking of the Ocean Viking ship, which was carrying people in deteriorating sanitary conditions. Schinas claims that migrants must be first allowed to disembark in the closest location before any resettlement operations can be carried out. In fact, a 2002 annex to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea states that people rescued at sea must be promptly taken to the nearest place of safety.

On the 25th of November, EU officials met at an extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting and reiterated the immediate necessity of a common resolution that would increase the support to all countries and organizations most involved in searching and rescuing migrants, in such a way as to avoid further deaths in the Mediterranean. In addition, home affairs ministers stressed the need to focus on human smuggling and the roots of migration in order to prevent departures. The meeting also highlighted the urgency to reinforce the existing migration pact, which allows frontline countries to either relocate a share of the migrants in other states or request funds from those EU members that reject any sort of responsibility.


A French-Italian dispute has the potential to become a full-blown European issue: this bilateral crisis reflects the state of the EU on the management of migration flows, which has not been successfully addressed since the refugee crisis of 2015-16. The union has not been able to unanimously reform its rules of asylum which currently put the burden of applications solely on the arrival country. Moreover, the state deemed competent to examine the application often ends up being also the place in which refugees remain once protection has been obtained. It could be thus discussed that this mechanism undermines the concept of shared responsibility among EU members. Arguably, it also does not take into account the aspirations of displaced people, nor their concrete prospects of finding a job in other European countries.

As a result, aside from a revision of the Dublin accords, there is the necessity to make the resettlement scheme compulsory because of its inefficiency when dealing with governments who have a harder stance against migration and thus refuse to comply with voluntary accords. A comprehensive agreement that would deal with the migrant flux on an ongoing basis is also needed, rather than relying on ad-hoc resolutions: for instance, the EU may benefit from a pact in which each member state is assigned a specific set of responsibilities and a quota of migrants according to its economic and demographic availability.

Furthermore, the European Union requires alternative solutions for migrants that are not eligible for international protection (e.g. economic migrants), who currently represent the majority of people reaching Europe through the central Mediterranean route – as stated by Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs. Focus should also be put on the Balkan situation, as it is the second most used route by migrants in order to reach Europe.

In conclusion, these are some of the challenges that the EU must face as whole, although the reality shows several obstacles when trying to reach collective decisions that would benefit all the parties involved. 

*Featured image: via Flickr

January 23, 2023No Comments

New Year, New Debt Distress in Africa

Author: Alessandra Gramolini.

The year that has just begun does not seem to be rosy for the African continent. At the beginning of 2022, Africa suffered from the pandemic and its effects on the economy. 2023 opens with many nations facing another crisis: unsustainable debt.

The crisis has been underway for years, long-term loans have more than doubled reaching 636 billion dollars in the decade 2011-2021, a figure that exceeds the gross domestic product of more than 40 African countries taken together. The pandemic has worsened the economic situation and the war in Ukraine has pushed many countries to the brink, cutting off access to finance, depleting foreign exchange reserves and sending national budgets into a tailspin.

Living on the razor’s edge

Debt is the biggest problem they will face even though the ratings agency, Fitch, expects average debt in sub-Saharan Africa to improve and be below 65% in 2023, after reaching 72% in 2020, helped from the economic recovery after the pandemic, rising commodity prices and efforts to reduce budget deficits, but this level compares with an average of 57% in 2019, before the pandemic, and with less than 30% between 2007 and 2013.

According to the analysis of the public debt of sub-Saharan African countries, almost half of the countries (42%) have a debt-to-GDP ratio above 70%, while the average debt-to-income ratio will continue to be above 300%, double the value of 2013. This would prove the deterioration of the economic bases of these countries and their evolution prospects.

The risks these countries will face are related to high inflation, difficult financial conditions, the general indebtedness of the economies caused by the pandemic and now also by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Fitch also forecasts that average inflation in the region will fall from about 8% in 2022 to 5.5% this year and that GDP growth will be around 4%, close to the average of 3.8% in the five years up to 2019, but well below the growth recorded up to 2014. In some countries, however, inflation is well above the regional average. Add to this that there are eight sub-Saharan African countries with government debt payments, in 2023, accounting for a quarter of foreign reserves.

Election year

On the political front, many countries will be called to vote during 2023. The results of these elections could increase the discontent of the populations already strongly suffering from the increase in the prices of basic necessities.

Election time can be very volatile in Africa and the 2023-24 cycle will be no different, with a high risk of political protests, mass demonstrations and strikes in a number of countries. Upcoming elections in countries such as Algeria, Madagascar, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe could prove hotbeds of disruptive civil unrest in 2023. Worsening socioeconomic conditions in some of these countries, driven by subdued wage growth, rising costs of living and food security concerns, could also prove problematic for incumbent or new government administrations.

What’s next?

While African policy makers can’t influence the global headwinds, they can take steps to build resilience. Rising prices of commodities in a continent endowed with everything from diamonds, iron ore, bauxite, cobalt, copper to platinum offer a chance to create stabilization or sovereign wealth funds to insulate against future shocks. The key to building savings is to have proper governance, by some estimates Africa has 20 such funds already, but not all have delivered.

Recent research says that China and the West should work together to find solutions for African debt distress. The report says that although China’s lending to Africa did not cause the current debt in the continent, it must cooperate with the international community and African nations, to support Africa’s investment needs, after a year of recession for most economies on the continent.

The G7, led by the incoming Japanese presidency for 2023, could develop and build support for a new plan to be eventually embedded at the G20 level on debt relief and investments in Africa. The plan could include a broad-based dialogue led by the G7, African nations, and China on:

  •  Africa’s medium- to long-term external financing needs; 
  • a high-level political understanding between the West and China on the mutual benefit of strengthened cooperation to address African debt distress; 
  • and a detailed action agenda, led by the G7 and G20 Finance Tracks, to address obstacles for debt treatments.

A way out of this situation could be strong reforms to find long-term solutions that can meet African economies’ financial needs and avoid a similar scenario in the future.

January 2, 2023No Comments

Securing Communications: what to expect from IRISS (Infrastructure for Resilience Interconnectivity Security by Satellite)

Authors: Giovanni Tricco, Giorgia Zaghi and Maria Makurat.

The challenges of secure communications today and the launch of IRISS

Secure communications and connectivity are today more important than ever. Ensuring a safe, fast and reliable channel for such strategic activities is not just a matter of digital transformation and competitive advantage, it is a matter of establishing one’s autonomy in a world where space power has become a critical component of international politics. On October 13th, the European Union took a significant step forward in order to achieve such autonomy. That is, the adoption of the report on the secure connectivity programme for 2023-2027, also known as Infrastructure for Resilience Interconnectivy Security by Satellite (IRISS). The aim of the program is to detach from third-country dependencies on infrastructure by securing the Union’s communications and to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to areas that are now considered “dead-zones”. Such goals will be met thanks to the nature of IRISS. That is, a multi-orbit constellation capable of creating synergies with the already existing satellites Galileo and Copernico. The constellation will be situated in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), the closest feasible latitude to the planet's surface spanning from 300 to 1600 km, ensuring rapid broadband connectivity.  That means, data will flow faster from terminals on the ground to satellites in orbit and back.        

While the necessity to establish the EU’s position in the space realm is certainly a strategic priority, the recent happenings of the war in Ukraine have highlighted some structural fragilities and vacuums which ultimately called for a concrete push in securing the Union’s communications.

Photo Credits:

War in Ukraine and satellite security

The Ukraine war has shown how a solid cyber strategy that includes satellites is vital also in face of war. In May, BBC News and other outlets reported of Russia hacking the Ukraine satellite communication KA-SAT system which was also attributed by the European Council to Russia in May 2022 in this statement. This attack had an impact on the communications as well as the government and the military. At the beginning of the war, there was also significant concerns by analysts whether Russia would launch several cyber attacks against satellites and communications systems in Ukraine and the West. As a reaction to this cyber attack on Ukraine, the European Space Policy Institute has released a report, to analyze said cyber attack on KA-SAT and how space cyber security plays a role for the war in Ukraine. An interesting take from the report is, that there also seems to be a question around which countries and which company are exactly responsible for the security of the communications system in another country: “The attack did not target the KA-SAT satellite itself, but one single “consumer-oriented partition of the KA-SAT network”, which is owned by the U.S. company Viasat but operated by Eutelsat’s subsidiary Skylogic. This raises questions on the responsibilities and liabilities of each company for ensuring proper cybersecurity.” This would be one significant challenge when it comes to developing new frameworks for the launch of constellations to ensure better connections between countries in terms of space security. This is also similarly discussed by academics such as Johann Eriksson and Giampiero Giacomello calling the consequence of technologies at the crossroad of outer space and cyberspace “fragmentation” - meaning that governance becomes increasingly difficult since “The growth of states with space program has gone from the original 2 to around 70 today, and the simultaneous growth of private corporations (and NGOs) in space contributes to an increasingly fragmented field of stakeholders.”

Furthermore, the US and other countries have been supporting Ukraine during the war with not only physical military equipment but also funds and technological development to keep the communications system intact. This support is part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) and shows how space and cyber are an integral part of the war. Ukraine has also been using AI during this war which was already analyzed by our members in another blog article which can be read here. Therefore, we can grasp why the EU is working on launching its sovereign constellation. 

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty of the matter. IRISS focuses on several goals which range from strategic positioning, creation of synergies and environmental concerns. More specifically, we can expect these objectives from the deployment of the constellation: 

  1. Top-notch technologies for secure communications: the constellation will integrate quantum computing features that will provide a higher level of encryption on the data that will flow on the new infrastructure. These technologies are part of the EruopeQCI (Quantum Communication Infrastructure) initiative and are aimed at improving the overall Cybersecurity and Resilience of the European Union along with improving its digital sovereignty and competitiveness. The program’s goal is to “safeguard sensitive data and critical infrastructures by integrating quantum-based systems into existing communication infrastructures, providing an additional security layer based on quantum physics”. 
  2. Synergies with already existing assets in the EU space programme: creating synergies with the already existing assets - Galileo and Copernico - IRISS will be offering new services such as addressing natural or maritime disasters. 
  3. High-speed broadband connectivity everywhere: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) pointed outthat just 63% of the world’s population was connected in 2021, amounting to 2.9 billion unconnected people. IRISS will be an important player in the fight of the digital divide, bridging the gap between urban and rural areas, eliminating “dead-zones”.
  4. Reducing space congestion: Considering the increasing volume of debris and satellites in space, IRISS sets new objectives for Space-Traffic Management, trying to keep space a safe environment. Additionally, the EU will use IRISS -  a key enabler for Air-Traffic Management - to reduce air traffic congestion and avoid an excess in fuel consumption, with the ultimate goal of reducing CO2 emissions.  

Moreover, as a spillover effect of the new communication system the EU will have the capability to reinforce its stance in cyberspace. The EU's new "status" will enable for the seamless operation of key infrastructure and the continuous cooperation of citizens and public agencies in the event of emergencies and disasters. Furthermore, it would serve as a backup infrastructure for terrestrial networks as well as a stable infrastructure for places that are currently disconnected but may need communication in the event of crises and catastrophes. 

Additionally, satellite communication, integrated with the data-imagery service of Copernicus,  would improve early-warning systems by monitoring the environment and delivering the latest data to public authorities, allowing them to respond rapidly to environmental hazards such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, or radioactive releases.

Therefore, several opportunities will arise for the EU following the constitution of an operational European Constellation. The new space infrastructure would be a significant step forward for the EU on its journey to digital sovereignty, as it would allow the EU to flow in outer space data and information that are considered sensitive and strategic for its autonomy. As a result, such data will be secured from unlawful third-party access, as may occur under extraterritorial law such as the US Cloud Act. In addition, the new constellation could be used as a ‘geopolitical tool’, offering fast broadband internet connection to neighboring countries, such as north africa, where internet access lacks. Indeed, of the 2.9 billion unconnected people the 96% reside in developing countries. 


In conclusion, IRISS holds an enormous potential in different areas, however, it is not free of challenges that must be addressed as quickly as possible. Indeed, a fine balance between public private and partnership in the construction of the constellation should be institutionalized, as well as shedding light on who should be responsible for the security and functioning of the constellation. Moreover, the EU will have to develop an attentive Space Traffic Management strategy to ensure a safe, secure and sustainable use of Space. Furthermore, how should AI be regulated in the constellation and, more broadly, in outer space? How much autonomy should a space object be granted? In particular, experts suggest that appropriate frameworks to offer legal certainty should be developed in the near future to offer appropriate guidelines on the use of AI and new technologies in outer space, such as to ensure coordination among satellites to avoid collisions or assessing an appropriate fair balance of Human-Robot Interaction for in-orbit services

The initial phase of IRISS development is critical for the time being to foster public debate about the relevance that the new constellation will detain and its future benefits and challenges. Indeed, in the upcoming years space will be a significant playground for the European Union as its digital sovereignty and autonomy will be put at test in front of issues related to both infrastructure dependency and strategic advantage.